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The impact of reserve prices on the perceived bias of expert appraisals of fine art



We examine whether expert appraisals provided to bidders before major art auctions are unbiased indicators of value. Despite a strong grounding in theory, this aspect of optimal auction design has been frequently challenged in previous empirical research, particularly in the market for fine art. We adopt a valuation benchmark that incorporates sellers' reserve prices as well as high bids, and recognize censoring of works that fail to make reserve. Although the auction houses never divulge reserve prices, we exploit the fact that they can be observed indirectly via their impact on buy-in rates. Using the set of French Impressionist paintings brought to auction from 1985 to 2001, we estimate the distribution of reserve prices, establish their link to a proper valuation benchmark, and isolate the selection bias due to bought-in works on the perceived market value of fine art works. After controlling for the impact of reserve prices, and considering all works brought to auction, we find no evidence of bias in the experts' pre-sale estimates. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.