This past week, I finished up my summer internship at Sotheby’s, an art auction house in New York City. While working in the Prints Department, I learned the ins and outs of how art is appraised, stored, and sold at auction.
In my art history courses, I have primarily learned about the lives of artists, the historical context of works, and the significance of aesthetics. At an auction house, all these factors are certainly important, but each work is also accompanied by a price tag. It was, at first, unsettling. It felt strange to recognize artworks as commodities and collectibles, rather than as aesthetic triumphs. By the end of my internship, I could look at a print and approximate its price, based not on what I thought made it artistically valuable, but rather on past comparable sales and market trends. It was incredible to see that the value of works by certain artists fluctuates, even as their place in art history remains stable and unquestionable. Like any other commodities market, the artworks are subject to trends in popularity and prices rise and fall accordingly.
While some might assume that looking at the dollar value of art strips it of much of its artistic and historical meaning, I have found that understanding the market has only deepened my understanding of art objects. When an artist completes a painting, its story has only begun. The painting passes from the hands of one owner to another, by sale, gift, or bequeathal. Each owner places the painting in a different spot in their home and associates the work with a different set of memories. By the time an artwork arrives at an auction house, it carries an entire material, sentimental history along with it. In many cases, the identity of a previous owner might actually add value to the work. I have come to appreciate that while museums display art works as pristine, untouched products of artist genius, all art works are in fact “used”—they have narratives that are not recorded in the art history books. The condition of the material object (the canvas, the paper, the paint) carries signs of this unrecorded history (wear, crack, sale stickers). Working at an auction house, I was able examine how artworks were loved, owned and appreciated by previous owners. I grew to understand the importance of the owner and the art collector in promoting artists and determining meaning. After all, many of the artists we know and love today were supported by patrons who provided them with the means to create their masterpieces. In sum, art would not exist without art enthusiasts.
Of course, within the field of art history, the subject of provenance (a technical term for a history of ownership) is gathering increasing importance. Some works of art are not sold, but stolen or forged. By tracking the past owners, one is able to ensure that the work is legally obtained and authentic. Art auction houses play a large role investigating provenance and determining if an item is fit for sale. In this way, auction houses work to maintain a certain level of quality and ethics in the art market and work to protect art owners from making unwise purchases.
Working in an art auction house has opened my eyes to the importance of the owner’s experience. An owner is a special kind of viewer, who looks at a painting over and over again and feels a sort of kinship with it. More than that, this sustained viewership can have a reciprocal effect of the work of art. The work becomes linked with the identity of the owner and gains a new life outside of the artist’s studio. By facilitating the sale of art, auction houses allow for art works to travel and find new homes and new future narratives.