Catalog Cover

138: 5 Design Attributes of Premium Auction Advertising

PicassoRecently, a lot of incredible art & antique auctions have made the news, including the record-breaking $179,400,000 paid for a Picasso painting at auction a few weeks ago.

That’s nine figures! It’s also roughly six times the hammer price of the most expensive asset I’ve ever helped an auctioneer advertise. When I see these headlines and stories, I get curious about how they were marketed—the budget, the strategy, the teamwork, etc. I wouldn’t want to be part of that process. I just want to observe it in action.

I discovered one of the other recent headline auctions in this category while flipping through a magazine that has mysteriously found its way into my mailbox. This fantastic full-page ad [shown below] stopped me in its tracts. I later learned that it costs $16,320 to run this black and white ad (and that it would’ve cost $27,200 in color). In my 15 years in the business I’ve never built an ad that expensive—not even close.

A few clicks later, I found this beautiful 210-page catalog for the Lauren Bacall auction. Its 740 lots were scattered at a luxuriously-light average of 3.5 lots per page. The photography and page layout really humbled me. (Many of the awards I’ve won in my career wouldn’t have been awards, if the best in the industry cared to enter their pieces like this one.) The biggest catalog I ever built was a comparatively-meager 20 or 24 pages.

Bonhams Catalog CoverRather than viewing my daily bread with disdain, I looked for elements from which I and my clients could learn. See, my clients have high-wire acts as risky as this practically-absolute Bonham’s auction. Only a few assets or collections I advertise a year might hit their $3,460,000 sale price, but auctioneers risk their time, resources, and reputations on speculation that assets will even sell and also at what price the hammer will land. Their commissions and their sellers’ financial statements are just as at stake as those in the international auction houses. Every day.

So, here are those lessons:

1. Clean trumps cluttered.

We can’t all use just a four-word headline and a photograph, but we can lean more heavily on our main attraction more. We can move from collages of small pictures to large images and leave the tertiary details to our websites. We can be ruthless with our text cleaver, strict with out templates, and humble with our logo placement.

2. Brochure covers don’t need a lot of information.

Candidly, my best brochure & catalog covers—even my award winners—are covered in mostly-redundant information. Imagine how much more visual appeal our brochures would have if we killed the content found elsewhere in the brochure! (Also imagine if we pared the rest of the brochure to easily fit and emphasize that content.)

3. Photography makes or breaks your media design.

Lauren Bacall THRThat catalog wouldn’t look nearly as attractive without professionally captured, edited, and masked images of lots that sold at an average of $4,676 per lot. The ads, catalog cover, and large-format media Bonhams used wouldn’t have grabbed your attention as easily without the rights to a striking portrait of Ms. Bacall. Even a great designer can’t overcome the disadvantage of poor photography. Even an inexperienced designer can look good with good images.

4. White space with small text looks luxurious.

If you want to make something look high end, shrink the font size and increase the space between elements on the page. This strategy allows the margin to draw the attention better to important elements. For brochures of real estate or other physically-large assets, you can substitute large, unused areas of background images to create the same effect. Bonham took this even further with entire completely blank pages in their catalog.

5. Trust the headline and primary image.

Ms. Bacall’s collection proved as diverse as it was valuable. The lots—that brought as much as $173,000 for a single item—deserved description. But Bonhams didn’t tell us about the lots in their first-impressions. They trusted the headline and primary image to lead to investigation, and they trusted that investigation to lead to bids. Our ads might still need a short paragraph of overview, but they need to stop looking like phone directory pages. If someone isn’t interested after the first two or three lines, it doesn’t matter how many lines of text we add.

THR ad details insetThe irony is that Bonhams showed more restraint for expensive items than we often do with much lesser lots. Maybe it’s not ironic, since most of us sell utilitarian items instead of luxury goods. Regardless, while it’s impractical for most auctioneers to put these principles in action to the degree Bonhams did, we can all move in these directions for advertising that competes in the marketplace—not just in the auction industry.

Sources for facts in this post: Lauren Bacall’s Eclectic Treasures Auctioned Off” by Alexandra Jacobs on, April 3, 2015. Lauren Bacall Jewelry Fetches More than $500,000” by Anthony DeMarco on, April 4, 2015.

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