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A $364m Auction Backstop & The Irrevocable Bid Dance

claude monet art auction
Much like the investment banker’s “go shop” period, the irrevocable bid has created a system where we often see private art sales conducted in public, since it allows sellers to agree to an acceptable price for their art but still hold out for more. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Marion Maneker
May 7, 2024

Questions about the May auction season abound, as always—no one knows whether the market will continue to contract or whether we’ve seen the bottom and tallies will rise. As I’ve said before, this season is different. It’s rare to see one market end while a new market has yet to gather force—especially during a period of economic strength and stability. Art buyers have plenty of money to spend. They’re just not sure what to spend it on. 

Meanwhile, discretionary sellers have little incentive to offer their works into an uncertain marketplace. And that’s where a little financial engineering comes in. After all, auction houses use their market expertise to make money for clients while managing their own risk profiles, too. The essential tool for creating enticing markets while managing downsides is known as the auction guarantee—especially the third-party guarantee, or the “irrevocable bid,” as it’s known at Sotheby’s. These are the houses’ attempts to lock in a buyer at a floor price, which could either smooth the path of a work to the block—or lure a higher bidder out of the woodwork.