Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Silent Art Auction

The Silent Auction has become a feature of a number of exhibitions by art societies and other organisations.

The latest is the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour who are holding an exhibition between 8-13th November at the Mall Galleries - with a view to raising funds for their educational activities and to document its history in a book.

It will include a silent auction of a large number of small paintings by members - with bids starting at £50 and concluding with last bids on Saturday 12th at 2.30pm!

Below you can find:
  • what is a silent auction - an overview of what a silent auction is, 
  • how to make a silent art auction successful - MUST DOs for running a silent auction; and 
  • how to succeed with your big at a silent auction!


What is a silent auction?


The characteristics of a silent auction are as follows:
  • The auction is run without an auctioneer - meaning 
    • no fee payment to an auctioneer
    • no commission payable to a gallery 
    • no encouragement to bid at a specific time on a specific piece
  • A minimum bid price can be set. 
  • A specific increment for bid increases can also be stipulated
  • A specific time period is set during which bids can be received (typically linked to the length of time of the event)
  • A closing time for the auction is set
  • Specific bids are submitted on paper
  • An individual can rebid before the end of the auction (this happens more often when bidders can see other bids made)
  • At the end of the silent auction, the individual with the highest bid received on paper wins the auction for the item
  • The silent auction can be 
    • either the main attraction 
    • or an event additional to a normal exhibition

In terms of the bidding process it can be opaque or transparent or both!
  • Opaque: Bids on paper are placed in a receptacle which is not cleared until the auction ends. Bidders might be submitting bids which have already been beaten by existing bids - however they feel good because they tried.
  • Transparent: In "open-book bidding" the bids are written on a piece of paper next to the item. This means:
    • no bid is wasted as everybody knows that to secure the item they need to bid higher.
    • it encourages people to bid higher
  • Opacity within a transparent process: On open bids a bidder may use a number rather than a name when bidding. That way nobody knows who has placed the bid - only the value that has been bid.  Some people find this a more comfortable process. (This is very similar to the way bidding works on eBay auctions - which is now very familiar to many people).

How to make a silent art auction successful


This is a checklist of things an organisation needs to do to make a silent auction successful.

Items for Auction

  • Be sure you have enough auction pieces to make it worthwhile. The purpose of a silent auction is often to raise funds for charitable endeavours so the objective is to raise funds. You MUST solicit items for the auction. This can take a lot of effort. Hence you need:
    • EITHER a large number of pieces to auction. For example: require every current art society member to submit a small work for auction
    • OR some important large artworks by artists people like to by work from.  This can mean disproportionate contributions made by some artists. However it's also an indication of a successful and collectable artist and can also be regarded as an accolade to be asked.
  • Do NOT accept "tat". I've seen some work submitted for fundraising efforts which frankly looked like the artist had cleared out a very dusty cupboard within his back catalogue. Such artists may be unaware of the huge damage it does to their reputation to appear so mean-spirited when it comes to raising funds - so make the call for contributions VERY explicit. Only good work representative of the artist should be submitted and all poor work will be rejected.
  • Make sure you can offer what people want - for an art society it might well be that an individual would rather pay more for a day of individual tuition with an artist than one of their small painting. Or bid on both.
    • Try combining items e.g. a small painting which comes with half a day of individual tuition and/or a portfolio review by the artist. 
  • Keep a Master List of who donated what - and what the result was.  This is best kept on an Excel Spreadsheet as you may want to organise data by different fields (eg media, minimum bid; retail value etc)
    • assign a number to every item received for auction - when it is received (and put the number of a sticky label on the back of the artwork at the same time)
    • describe the contribution eg title, media, size, description, whether framed or unframed
    • name of the contributor plus contact details
    • retail value
    • suggested minimum starting bid (if above the minimum for the auction as a whole)
    • send a thank you to everybody who contributed and a note of what happened to their contribution

Marketing and Administration

  • Make sure the REASON for the Silent Auction is explicit - people donate for reasons - give them a good reason. Tell them precisely how you will use the funds. If they connect with the reasons (rather than some general "fundraising" effort) then you will raise more funds.
  • Make it a feature of your regular exhibitions. Silent auctions often only become successful when run on a regular basis - so that 
    • people know to expect them - and visit the exhibition and attend the auction
    • artists know the standard that is expected and nobody wants to be the artist whose work doesn't sell!
    • a little bit of competition by both artists and collectors can infiltrate the process!
    • people begin to look forward to the event
  • Be prepared for the time and effort involved
    • Make sure you have enough volunteers to set aside time and effort to run the process. 
    • It's time intensive - particularly for the first one. However it you run one as an annual event a lot of the workload begins to dissipate as people know what to expect 
  • Make sure people know it is happening - there's no point in organising a Silent Auction if nobody knows about it!
    • make the process explicit on your website
    • list the names of the artists participating
    • makes the images of the items in the silent auction visible on the website so people can bid remotely
    • use social media to show people work in the auction as well as work in the exhibition
    • market through your normal channels eg email lists of Friends and Collectors
    • encourage those friendly to your cause to tell their friends
  • Have tax advice available for those who want it - both artists and bidders
  • Provide feedback to art society members on who did well in the auction. Run it every year and that feedback will help improve next year's efforts.

The Silent Auction Process

  • Organise the auction item into sections - people like different artwork and have different budgets. You can organise by:
    • theme / type of artwork - 
    • starting bid for the pieces in the section - you can make sure items which should go to high bids do so. It's also a signal to bidders as to what sort of bid might succeed.
  • Display work well - Make sure it looks as good as you can make it. 
    • this is a shop window, the way artwork is exhibited makes a difference to the number of bids it attracts. 
    • Create nice looking Certificates for services on offer - make these identical in basic design and maybe vary the colours and use any logos which might be appropriate to the contributor
  • Tell people about the artist - and why they are collectable. In other words sell the artist as well as the work. Don't rely on the artist to do this for you. Some are notoriously awful at marketing themselves.  You can tell who needs help by looking at their website (if one exists!) They may need coaching - a lot of coaching!
  • Make sure items and bid sheets are clearly visible - Make sure the Bid Sheets are well organised in design terms. To be able to bid the bidder needs to 
    • be able to see the artwork
    • be able to see clear information about the artwork; 
    • see previous bids - which then frames the size of the next bid
    • get access to the bid sheet (So do monitor how people congregate near the areas where the silent auction is taking place. People who are just chatting endlessly are preventing people bidding and the organisation from raising funds!)
  • Make sure the bid sheets can't walk or get confused! 
    • Attach the bid sheets to clipboards with tape.  
    • Having a thumbnail image of the item on the bid sheet helps avoid confusion
  • Indicate the normal retail price - This has a number of advantages and helps raise funds
    • It reinforces the notion that this is not work which hasn't sold but rather is representative of this artist's work. 
    • The artist has to make sure the work is good and the retail value is warranted. Those organising the silent auction MUST query any values or work which appear to be over-rated relative to the quality of the work.
  • Stipulate bid increments - make it very clear what's expected in terms of bid increases (eg £5 between £50-99; £10 between £100 and £250). 
  • Make sure lots of pens are available - you'd be surprised how many people pass on writing out a bid because there were no pens were available at the time - or were in use.
  • Have a process for remote bidding - this only works if you've made the items in the auction visible online
    • set up a dedicated silent auction remote bid email address and monitor the receipt of bids via this email throughout the bidding period
    • mark up remote bids on the bidding sheet
    • if you are keen to really stimulate remote bidding - update the bids made to date on the website in real time or at the end of every hour or day (as appropriate)
  • Do NOT make the silent auction compete with a live auction - competing priorities can mean you lose out on raising funds

The End Game

The end of a silent auction can be extremely demanding in terms of needing to process a lot of payments and handing out a lot of artwork in a short space of time. This particularly applies if the end is late in the evening and people want to get home.

Think very carefully about how to avoid annoying your art collectors by making the end game efficient, effective and business-like!
  • Stop on time and collect the Bid Sheets immediately 
    • warn people BEFORE the bidding closes of how long they have left
    • at an event like a dinner you can tell people how they find out whether they won and how to collect their work. Otherwise this information needs to be on the website or made very clear and explicit within the room
    • If you don't collect all the bid sheets in immediately you might find that those who are very keen might sneak in a late bid after the deadline!
  • Determine winning bids and totals payable. These are all those that met the minimum bid size and the money can be collected asap. 
    • Have an explicit and publicised policy for when you need to move on to the next bid.
    • Sort the bids sheets so that you can identify the total payable per bidder. Some will have bid more than once on different items and you need to be able to give them a TOTAL amount to pay - and provide a note of what this represents (i.e. which bids they won and what artwork they can collect)
  • Make sure you collect the money - This too needs a process which need to be very efficient and very effective
    • You need a safe secure area where people can provide their financial details and pay for their 'win'. (Remember very many people will be very reluctant to hand over card details unless in person or via a secure payment service)
    • Have facilities available to take both cash and card transactions - and make sure the card machines work!
    • Make sure you have enough TRAINED people available to deal speedily with the transactions.
    • Have a form which people can fill in to tell you how to contact them for payment. This enables people to leave if they want to - and still pay you.
    • You'd also be surprised how many people bid on items and then don't pay up. They just want to look good! Watch out for the "no-shows".
  • Make sure the process for collecting artwork is explicit
    • No artwork should be collected before payment is made.
    • small artworks can be taken away on the day or collected from a specific place
    • larger artworks may well need couriering - at the purchaser's expense - to their new home. 
    • Think about and make explicit who is responsible for the insurance.
    • Work out in advance what you are going to do with the unsold work - and who is going to move it to where!
  • Make donations really easy to make. The real End Game is to raise money. Lots of people don't need more "stuff" in their lives and are much happier donating to a good cause. So persuade them as to why your cause is worthy and then make it super simple for them to donate e.g. 
    • tell people what they buy for a specific monetary value of donation eg $50 buys....
    • don't make them wait in line - allow them to fill in a form with an indication of how best to contact them to get the payment
    • have somebody dedicated to generating donations - but don't allow them to be irritating.

How to succeed with your bid at a silent auction


Artists won't be surprised to find out that many of them are also art collectors and they buy the work of fellow artists.

So when you art society runs a silent auction, how can you make sure your bid succeeds for a work by an artist you've always wanted but can't afford!

So here are some thoughts as to how you can succeed:
  • be prepared to turn up late or stick around the bidding sheet at the end of the bid process. The people who win auctions are those who have the highest bid at the end. Not the ones who had the highest bid 30 minutes earlier.  Remember auctions get won or lost on Etsy in the last 10 seconds! 
  • if you really like the work bid what you are prepared to pay. A high bid often closes out other bids. There again it can precipitate a bidding war!
  • keep an eye on how the bid is progressing. Some artworks speed through your budget range and head on to higher heights very quickly. Don't get disheartened - keep looking at what you can afford.
  • be on the lookout  for the sleeper. This is the one where nobody has bid. It's not that it's not a good work - it's just that old practice of people wanting to follow others who have made the first bid which signals that an item is worth taking seriously. 

I hope you this gives you some food for thought and that you raise a lot of money for your worthy cause.

Do please add in any tips from silent auctions you have run - as a comment - and I'll add them in above with a credit to you.


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