Sell Your Art Successfully at Online Auctions

Millions of antiques, collectibles, and works of art are for sale at any given moment at online auctions. The competition to sell just about any such item is intense and international. Regarding works of art, smart sellers are aware of this competition as well as of their online auction odds for success and, as a result, have developed various strategies and techniques in order to minimize competition, maximize bidding, and bank the big bucks when the time comes to cash buyers' checks.

The most important aspect of successfully auctioning art online is to know what you've got before you sell it. As in the bricks-and-mortar world of shops, shows, sales, and auctions, you have to research your artist, the significance of your art, and have a reasonable idea of its desirability and value in the marketplace. Either do this research on your own or hire an appraiser to do it for you.

Basic information about a work of art, its value, and the artist is essential to effective selling and must be translated into a compelling online auction presentation in order to position your art for the best exposure and the most views-- and bids. Not knowing what you're selling can cause you to leave out important information when you list your art and, consequently, reduce the number of people who see your art as well as contribute to its final selling price. Assuming you've researched your art and know what you're selling, the following pointers will help you present your facts in such a way as to maximize your online auction bottom line.

Initial Research

Make a list of keywords that accurately describe your art. These should include the name of the artist; the city, state, region, and country where the art was created; the type of art, the date, the subject matter, and other pertinent details. Type your keywords into an online auction search engine, such as eBay's, one at a time. At this early stage, typing more than one word at a time greatly reduces the number of search matches. Use more than one keyword only when you get hundreds or thousands of matches on a single keyword search. Add keywords one by one until the search narrows and the results pretty accurately match your art.

See how many and what types of items come up on each keyword search and compare them to the art you have for sale. Note those keywords that bring up items most similar to your art. Search completed items as well as those currently up for sale. Completed sales give you the most accurate idea of what your art is worth, but may lack pictures (many sellers quickly remove pictures once their auctions end). Sales in progress aren't that good for price research, but they show how active bidding is on particular items and, most importantly, show images which are essential for comparison with your art.

See what sells for how much. You should have some idea of what art similar to yours sells for online and how common it is when the time comes to set your minimum bid and asking price. When a search yields more than 50 results, arrange and study them in order of selling price, from highest to lowest (eBay has this display option). This shows not only what items get the highest prices, but also what types of title lines, descriptions, and quality of images help fetch those prices.

Listing Your Art: The Title Line

The title line is the most important part of your art's online auction listing. Those few words are what attract the great majority of potential bidders to your art. Your list of the most popular keywords that accurately describe your art will become your online auction title line.

Pack your title line with as many keywords as possible. Try different combinations in order to get the most words into the limited space provided. Be aware that some works of art appeal to more than one type of collector so make sure your keywords take all such collectors into account. For example, a painting of a sailboat should be described with keywords that appeal to both nautical collectors and art collectors.

Avoid use of words like "rare," "fantastic," "important," or "famous" in your title line. They may look great and make your art seem special, but they're space wasters that serious buyers hardly ever type into search engines when looking for items to bid on. Every single title line word you use should give specific information about your art.

Grammar doesn't count in title lines either, but spelling does. Avoid words like "the," "and," and other connectors that may please your English teacher, but waste space and don't help people locate your art. Misspell a keyword, however, and you can lose hundreds of potential buyers. And never abbreviate important keywords in title lines (unless you discover certain abbreviations that are accepted and generally used-- you may come across these in your keyword research); most potential buyers do not search using abbreviations.

If your art is by a minor or less well known artist, putting the type of art, region where it was created, and other more crucial keywords in your title line may be preferable to wasting space with the name of an artist that few people search for. For example, a title line for a painting of a baseball game done in New York City during the Great Depression by a minor artist might attract more viewers if it reads "WPA Painting New York Baseball Artist Art" than "WPA Painting Hubert Smithson New York Artist." You'll have plenty of space to talk at length about who Smithson is and what he's accomplished in the body of your art's description.

Minimum Opening Bids and Reserves

Make your minimum opening bid and reserve dollar amounts less than the amounts that you see comparable art selling for online. The lower you can afford to make these dollar amounts, the better. The more of a bargain an item looks like, the more bids it attracts. High minimum opening bids and reserves discourage bidding and scare bidders away. You want bidders to feel that if they persist, they'll be able to win your auction.

Sellers who ask for too much money often fail to sell their art and, worse yet, dozens and sometimes hundreds of bidders watch it fail to sell. This makes the art less desirable the next time it comes up for auction. Bidders remember it from its first appearance, think that it has problems or other undesirable characteristics, and either bid lower than they did the first time or not bid at all.

Timing Your Auction

Time the end of your auction so that bidding closes when most people are home and available such as Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday during the early to mid evening hours. Some bidders use sniping software to place final bids and don't have to be present when sales end, but many experienced bidders still sit in front of their computers and bid manually. The more potential bidders who are online at the close of your auction, the higher the final bid tends to be.

Use the longest time option available for your online auction. You want to give people as much time as possible not only to find your art, but also to research it and decide how much they want to spend. The more people who have a chance to see and bid on your art, and the more comfortable they are about bidding, the more money it tends to sell for.

Displaying Images of Your Art

Use good clear images to show your art. Bidders want to see details. Show the front, back, and other important areas of your art. Show close-ups of signatures, areas of damage, areas that are particularly well done, and other strong points. Good quality images help sell your art and net you higher prices.

Keep image sizes under 100K or so in order to speed downloads for potential bidders. Avoid blurry pictures or ones that are too small. People who cannot clearly see what they're bidding on tend either to bid low or to not bid at all. Note that some of the free image upload services are inferior because their images cannot be enlarged beyond a certain point.

Describing Your Art

Be truthful when you describe your art. Never misrepresent, bend the truth, play with words, or deliberately leave out important information about your art. Avoid personal opinions about the importance or significance of your art unless you can back them up with facts. Keep the tone of your description neutral, and don't talk down to bidders or place numerous restrictions on how they should behave or when they can contact you.

Include brief background information about your art's artists such as which reference books they're listed in, some of their more significant accomplishments, how much their most expensive art auctions for, and so on. This information is especially important when artists are minor or less well-known. Include all dimensions, weights (for sculptures), and other significant physical characteristics of your art.

Encourage bidders to ask as many questions as possible. You want them to be fully informed about what they are bidding on before they bid. This minimizes the chances of problems after an auction has ended. Answer all bidder questions thoroughly, completely, and quickly. Saving all email correspondences with bidders during the course of an auction is also a good idea and sometimes comes in handy in case of any disagreements or disputes.

If your art is big or bulky, research approximately how much it will cost to pack and ship, and include that dollar amount in your description. You don't want to shock the winning bidder with a shipping bill of hundreds of dollars. Remember that most shippers charge by distance shipped as well as by size and weight so include a range in your description.

Make your art available to bidders in as many countries as possible. This increases the high bids in a good percentage of cases. Allow winning bidders a certain time period, usually three to seven days, during which they can inspect the art, make sure that it was properly represented, and return it if they discover any problems that were not mentioned in the description. Sellers who offer moneyback guarantees like this tend to put bidders at ease and, as a result, net higher prices for their art.


Follow the above guidelines and not only will you successfully sell your art, but you'll also establish your reputation as an honest and diligent online seller. The best online sellers cultivate loyal followings over time and fetch higher prices for their art than sellers who buyers are not familiar with.

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(art by Ben Peterson)

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