Experience of an Art Auction House Intern

Posted on July 7, 2011


This article was originally written for MouthLondon magazine

I recently spent three months interning at one of the top art auction houses in London. Two names spring to mind? Yes, it was one of those. The art was as beautiful as I expected it to be, the people as well educated and well dressed as I expected them to be, but behind the beauty and the smiles was a grittiness that I hadn’t anticipated.

It’s all about sales. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but when good art becomes about money it changes things.

It is a world where a name is everything and a painting without a Certificate of Authenticity, however beautiful, is worthless. The auction house experts are honed connoisseurs, they can recognise a Picasso-hand at 10 paces. Second to the name, works are valued on their aesthetic merits, but only because buyers go for beauty. As an Art History student, this blew my mind – I couldn’t remember the last time I asked myself how attractive I found a work of art, let alone made a judgement of worth based purely on this.

It’s not as if this is entirely the doing of the auction houses – the potential of Art as investment changes the way buyers approach great works. Some people’s attitudes are made clear when they don’t pick up their painting after the auction, if your only intention is to re-sell then it makes sense to avoid paying the insurance bill for as long as possible. I can’t imagine that anyone would have the most expensive works on the walls of their home – the insurance costs would be unimaginable. There was something sad about selling off amazing pieces of art, knowing that they were going to disappear under the veil of private ownership.

Another surprise was the heat of the rivalry with the other art auction house. Each house wines, dines and cajoles clients into selling with them – savvy clients play them off on one another. The ugly side is the vehemence with which they pursued art in private collections, secretly making notes of worthy works when visiting homes to assess other pieces, filing the information in the “Chase File” and then regularly scanning the obituaries and calling bereaved children to inquire after ‘that lovely Monet in the drawing room’. I was glad this was not part of my work.

My days were mostly spent researching potential sales. I’d begin with a picture of a work and then search through the chaotic filing system looking for details of the painting and records of past sales; this involved identifying the numerous amounts of fakes that get submitted. I’d also be called upon to run office errands, such as disseminating the post, getting coffees or picking up a new pair of shoes for one of my superiors.

Despite the negatives and the grittiness, I loved working at one of the top art auction houses in London, it’s a bit like studying at Oxbridge – you might mock the institution, but you’re secretly proud to be a part of it. And the best thing about it? Without a doubt the amazing art I had the privilege of being surrounded by. You’d be trawling through a filing cabinet when somebody would walk past carrying a De Chirico. And the moment of auction is addictively thrilling – months of hard work culminate in a tense and theatrical evening that can see your efforts rewarded with record-breaking sales.

Whilst I do worry that the name of this institution on my CV will typecast me, not least because very few people (myself excluded) get internships based on personal merit – this is very much a who-you-know vocation – the experience reminded me of why I love beautiful art and I would recommend it to anyone. It is true that I may never be able to look at art in exactly the same way again, and while I may miss my lost naivety at times, I don’t regret the deeper understanding I’ve gained of the art world. One thing is for certain: if it wasn’t for rich collectors investing in their passion for great art, then we would never get to see any of it.

As told to Frances Richens

Posted in: Feature, Interview