Last summer, I had the pleasure of taking part in a work experience placement at Christie’s, the world’s leading auction house. Between July and August, I joined the Old Master Drawings team in the London headquarters, a stone’s throw away from Picadilly Circus and the Royal Academy. Like most art-history graduates, I was thrilled by the opportunity: Christie’s is an art-world legend and currently detains the record for the most expensive work of art ever sold (a painting attributed to Leonardo that raised over $450 million in 2017).
As you may gather from previous posts, I am deeply interested in the art market. Works of art have little intrinsic value beyond the materials they are made of. Karl Marx acknowledged it two centuries ago in his notes about art, suggesting that art is mostly a matter of consideration. This is also something that Giulio Carlo Argan, one of the founding fathers of Italian art history and a favourite of mine, used to say. The art market, with its recent mind-blowing records, is proof that art is such because of an ineffable aura which institutions like Christie’s help to craft.
Working in the Old Master Drawings department, I spent a lot of my time researching works in preparation for auctions. When a lot arrives at Christie’s, specialists must verify its authenticity, provenance, and further information that ends up in the catalogue. They may consult old auction results, catalogue raisonnés (when available) and experts in the field of a certain artist or movement. Everything is carefully fact-checked and, as an intern, I travelled around London’s libraries to make sure that this was the case. I spent hours and hours at the Courtauld Institute, a few in the V&A’s National Art Library and many more at the British Library.
During the work experience, I accessed outstanding art on a daily basis. I handled drawings by Italian masters such as Giovanni Tiepolo and Annibale Carracci. As my department shared office with the Prints & Multiples group, I also saw high-quality impressions by Renaissance masters such as Giulio Romano and Cornelis Cort, as well as modern and contemporary prints. While Old Master Drawings is a rather niche field, I ended up experiencing the most diverse array of works I could ask for.
I remember with particular fondness the days when a client would consign new works and I would gather with my colleagues around the table in admiration. There was a sense of shared excitement since we knew we were about to witness something unique and special. In fact, many of the works sold through Christie’s are in private collections, so that specialists have the privilege to observe them from close before they pass to a new owner.
After three years of intense art-history studies, working at Christie’s was an outstanding way to end my time as an undergraduate. For about two months, I was art-struck on a daily basis and became part of a passionate team of experts. While the firm does not pay work experience interns (they are considered volunteers and are only entitled to a food-and-travel allowance), I would definitely recommend those that have such an opportunity to follow through.