Inside the Mind of a Million-Dollar Art Bidder

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This fall, the usual round of high-end art auctions felt suspended in some kind of alternate reality. Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their annual November sales just one week after the biggest upset in U.S. history — and according to market analysts, both did extraordinarily well. There was a “14-minute battle” among five Christie’s bidders for a famous painting by Monet called Grainstacks (or Meule), which set a new record at $81.4 million. Twenty-four hours later, at rival Sotheby’s, 64 contemporary lots grossed $276.6 million — nearly $70 million above the low forecast.

With such astonishing sums of money being tossed around, one might assume that art buyers are making cool, levelheaded decisions, especially when they’re in a room full of people they know and are trying to impress. This is often not the case. To the contrary, scientists see mounting evidence of “auction psychology”: For all their success, it’s likely some of the world’s savviest business leaders and ultrahigh-wealth individuals get swept up —just like anybody might — in the thrill of the moment.

Of course, art valuation is inherently circular, and the increasing use of third-party guarantees can certainly skew auction numbers. Economically speaking, an artwork is worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. At the same time, just because someone dropped $81.4 million on Grainstacks doesn’t mean that’s the Monet’s inherent value.

Here’s a look at what researchers are discovering about the invisible forces that entice big-league art buyers.

Auctions are designed to push bidders’ emotional buttons.

Before they set foot on the floor, big names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Steve Wynn are subtly — and not so subtly — primed to bid to win, even if that means overpaying. Economists call this heart-racing factor “auction fever,” which they’ve observed with live and online bidding. In a 2005 paper, J. Keith Murnighan, the late psychologist and Northwestern Kellogg School of Management professor, described the phenomenon from a bidders’ perspective, writing that their “adrenaline starts to rush, their emotions block their ability to think clearly, and they end up bidding more than they ever envisioned.”

Time pressure makes art buyers even more emotional.

A central part of “auction fever” is the time crunch, a phenomenon that is, of course, not limited to art-buying; adults who wouldn’t know Gerhard Richter from Robert Ryman would probably agree their pulse quickens when they have to think on their feet or make a big decision quickly. But a pair of experiments, published in 2015, found evidence of a physiological connection between that pulse-quickening and higher auction prices. A team of German and Australian scientists measured people’s heart rates and electrodermal response to gauge their excitement level during “ascending auctions”— where the goal is to outbid someone else, like big-league art sales — varying time constraints and competitive intensity. Under more time-pressured conditions, participants’ biological signals increased, and they placed higher bids.

Confronted by the century’s most coveted artists, Sotheby’s and Christie’s buyers have only seconds to decide whether to spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) on a piece of artwork. But the exhilaration phase — when an art bidder is driven purely by desire may be more fleeting — is where perceptive pre-auction marketing plays a pivotal role.

Auction houses have just 700 milliseconds to sway a buyer.

David Forbes, a cognitive psychologist and author of The Science of Why: Decoding Human Motivation and Transforming Market Strategy, applies neuroscience methods to uncover the subconscious emotions and aspirations that drive consumer decisions, something he calls the “MindSight process.” According to him, it takes about a tenth of a second to recognize exactly what you’re seeing. But it’s the next 500 to 700 milliseconds that are crucial to an auction house — where the game is won or lost — because that’s when the brain is primarily focused on emotional processing of an image. By 800 or 900 milliseconds, activity occurs in the prefrontal cortex, where higher mental processing about the artwork takes over.

So Christie’s and Sotheby’s have only about 700 milliseconds to sneak under the radar, before an art collector’s intellectual, linear thought prevails. “The job of the auction house is to create desire around objects, and a lot of that will come before the sale,” explains Dave Harper, curator, consultant, and former director of artist and institutional relations at online auction house Paddle 8. Publishing impressive catalogues, staging pre-auction viewings — even flying paintings for previews around the world —all encourage emotional attachment before buyers takes their seats.

Good auctioneers are amateur psychologists.

Cultural sociologist and ethnographer Sarah Thornton is the author of Seven Days in the Art World, a behind-the-scenes narrative of seven contemporary art “subcultures,” one being an auction. As she explains it, the best auctioneers are “astute psychological readers” of the room. A good auctioneer knows the budgets and buying habits of his bidders — and he’s aware of everyone’s body language in that room. Eye contact is crucial. An auctioneer looks at each bidder, Thornton writes in Seven Days, as if he or she is the only one in the room.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctioneers also have a surprising theatrical advantage up their sleeves: They’re allowed to fabricate bids from thin air to create the appearance of greater demand for a painting to meet its reserve (the minimum price a consignor agrees a piece can sell for). The auction world refers to the somewhat controversial practice as “chandelier bids,” because an auctioneer might point to a light fixture or some other random spot in the room, pretending someone has actually raised a paddle. A wealthy buyer may very well be spending tens or hundreds of thousands to beat an imaginary opponent for, say, his dream Agnes Martin.

Social pressure — whether real or imagined — is key.

Those same scientists who measured time pressure, heart rate, and electrodermal response also found that auction fever exists only when bidders are engaged in social competition. Study participants took part in auctions with either other human bidders or computerized programs — and when they bid against computer opponents, their bodies’ physiological excitement levels were lower than when they bid against other humans.

Consider the combative lingo: Buyers win or lose an auction. But nobody wins or loses an Eames chair at Design Within Reach. Nicholas D. Lowry, the president of, and principal auctioneer at, Swann Auction Galleries in New York (whose fall contemporary art sales saw works up to $25,000) recently described a buyer’s competitive drive. “If you were in a room, and the woman next to you started bidding on a handbag that you’ve been hovering over,” he told the New York Times, “you’d look her in the eye and you’d put your hand right up and say … ‘I can spend more than you. Disappear from my life, you toad.’”

Even at charity auctions, people will often one-up friends or go well beyond what is rational to spend in the heat of the moment, according to Harper, the former director at Paddle 8. He describes instances where people purposefully outbid themselves, using one paddle in each hand. “Whether it was because they had a set amount they wanted to go to charity or just wanted to show off,” he said, “I’m not sure.” That is why getting people physically into a room to bid can be so beneficial, explained Maureen Sullivan, an independent consultant and curator, who’s organized charity auctions, including for the New Museum in Manhattan. “At some point it becomes a little bit like gambling,” Sullivan said. “These are successful people, used to getting what they want, so the urge to win kicks in, often to the benefit of the fundraising organization.”

Ironically, psychological evidence suggests bidders misjudge how much other collectors really care about them. Known as the “spotlight effect,” studies have found that people tend to overestimate attention from an audience, believing the “social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.” Feelings of rivalry, however, may push prices up, as the super wealthy can travel in rather tight circles. “When you have face-to-face bidding at these auctions, you may have people who’ve dealt with each other in business before and neither likes to be seen losing publicly,” said Don Thompson, an economist who specializes in the art market, and author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. “They may have bid against each other before at auction or number two might be married to number one’s ex-wife.”

People are easily misled about how much art “should” cost.

Art valuation is an inherently subjective process, said Jesse Prinz, cognitive scientist and professor of philosophy at City University of New York, Graduate Center, who studies the psychology of art. Taste in contemporary art is quite variable and can be influenced in surprising ways (perhaps because it’s newer and less proven). Prinz points to experiments where participants were blinded to a panel of wines of varying quality. And, score one of for the anti-wine-snobs: People will rate the cheaper stuff highly, if they think it’s expensive. What’s more, using brain scans, German neuroscientists recently showed that people’s perception of a wine’s vintage altered their neurological experience drinking it. In other words, prejudice about an item’s worth might distort a buyer’s neural chemistry.

Art bidders, Prinz thinks, experience this same sort of bias and brain activity. For instance, his research with psychologist Angelika Seidel showed that people put a higher value on artwork hung at a height where they must lift their head slightly to view it. Meanwhile, economist and professor of business at Florida State University Yi Zhou has found the size of an artist’s signature on a canvas significantly affects the value of work at auction and fairs like Art Basel in Miami last month. (Even artists with longer surnames, Zhou explained to me, do better financially.) “The frame a piece is in, the color of the wall, the glamour of the setting, the price of a painting,” agreed Prinz, “all highly impact how someone feels about artwork and how much someone will pay for it.”

At one lower-tier fall auction I visited, prints — including some by sought-after artists like Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami — were stacked, in plain view by the stage, waiting for a white-gloved assistant to hand off the next lot. But the art felt less valuable because there was so much of it, stored so unalluringly. Neither the white gloves nor the free champagne could mitigate the glaring lack of scarcity and exclusivity — and the auction felt sluggish as numerous lots passed unsold. After all, Prinz says, auctions are all about creating hype and mystique — though it’s the price tag that “literally endows [the artwork] with value.” This psychological bias is called “anchoring,” and the idea is that the size of an opening bid — or the painting’s auction estimate or previous sale — creates rose-colored glasses for buyers. If a house sets an estimate too low, Prinz warns, collectors tend to find the piece less valuable to them.

Buyers can be tricked into feeling like they already own a painting.

One of Christie’s and Sotheby’s most persuasive tools is the “endowment effect” — people’s tendency to overvalue things they already have, even for an unbelievably short period. In one famous experiment, participants who were first given a chocolate bar were unwilling to trade it for a coffee mug, while those given the coffee cup wouldn’t trade it for the candy bar. In another case, once someone owned a mug, they required nearly twice as much to buy it from them than they were willing to pay for a new one. Auction houses try to boost bidders’ feelings of ownership and “loser’s regret” — the anticipated fear of missing out — whenever possible.

“Once you bid on artwork it’s yours,” explained Thompson, “and now suddenly, the next bidder wants to take it from you.” Which is, once again, why a skilled auctioneer is part sophisticated salesman, part amateur psychologist — who knows just how to sway the world’s richest art buyers. “Throughout the art auctions,” Thompson said, “you’ll see them say things like ‘No regrets,’ ‘Last bid — are you sure?,’ ‘Are you back in?’ and ‘Don’t let him have it.”

The latest Grainstacks owner may have set a market record. But ultimately, the price of a Monet could say as much about how people behave in the heat of the moment as it does the enduring beauty of Impressionist art.

Inside the Mind of a Million-Dollar Art Bidder