The Auction House Experience: Touching the Art

This summer, I had a chance to intern at an auction house in Milan. For about four months, I assisted their modern and contemporary specialist department. Following office hours, I took care of several different tasks, enjoying the fast-paced and varied experience that the secondary art market has to offer. As I am going to explain, this period gave me a new insight into the experience of handling works of art and how this may influence our perception of such objects. If you want to read more about my work experience in general, here you can find the article that I recently wrote for Varsity, Cambridge’s main student newspaper.

Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the artists that I encountered during my work experience (yet, not the same work of art)

During the internship, handling works of art was part of my daily routine. Often, we would receive a work for a valuation; in this case, the specialist team analyses the object, considering whether it may be genuine or not and producing an estimate of its market value. Used to visiting museums, I initially thought that I would have looked at the works from a safe distance, when in fact the task required a much deeper level of physical engagement. Works of art are far from immutable. Their appearance may change over time and their individual history is shaped by the interactions with viewers and collectors. For this reason, I soon learned that there are several material signs that the specialist has to look for in order to assess the past vicissitudes of an object.

The first work that I studied independently was a small drawing by the painter Nicolas Poliakoff. My supervisor moved the frame from the wall and passed it into my hands. Obviously, the first impact was almost shocking: museums, one’s most frequent contact with art, are populated by “do not touch” signs to the point that the works acquire a quasi-sacred aura. I started handling the piece, looking closer so as to examine the signature, the pencil traits, and so on. Then I turned the frame, inspecting the back and looking for labels from previous owners or dealers. In this context, I discovered that some auction houses have very specific ways of marking the objects they deal with. For example, Sotheby’s usualluy has works of art marked with yellow chalk. Small traces of this sort can convey important notions about the history and provenance of a piece.

A work by Hsiao Chin, an artist that I discovered during my internship (a different work of art though)

By handling works of art on a daily basis, I realised that the history of a work of art is often deeper then the circumstances of its making. The vicissitudes of an object can prove to be an invaluable resource to understand its value, its relevance, and even its beauty. These elements influence the pricing of a work of art too so that it is always necessary to consider the provenance of a piece. Therefore, works of art have a multi-layered identity: the material value of the object itself is only one component. I entered this sector from the perspective a museum-goer, so that I mostly ignored these subtleties. In the museum context, we are fed a certain art-historical narrative which often presents the works of art as eternal and immutable. On the contrary, as one gets closer, their full complexity is revealed.

This post is not supposed to be a criticism of the museum modes of display. In the auction business, works of art are handled by professionals, who are (ideally) trained to treat each piece with the appropriate care. In a way, I feel it was a great privilege to be able to develop such an intimate relation with the objects around me. I was given an invaluable opportunity to experience works of art like never before, in an intimate and constant exchange between myself and the objects. Such occasions inevitably transform the way one understands and perceives both the works of art and the system (the art world) in which they are created and inserted into a broader cultural discourse.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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