Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 1

Auction graphic

As a graduate student dreaming of a future museum career, my idea of a curator’s job was glamorous. I imagined working on the layout of exhibitions, attending opening cocktail parties, taking trips to museums, accessing art treasures in storage, and sitting in a crowded auction to bid on art for the collection.

I admit that a curator’s job is pretty cool, but in reality it is only about 10% those glamorous things and 90% email. This spring, however, I’m thrilled to be working to purchase an object for the Museum’s collection at auction, and I’m going to share the steps through this blog. Welcome to Step 1 of the process!

Just a warning: You might find this post partially un-gratifying, because until the deal is done and the papers are signed, I can’t disclose precisely what the object is. Why is that? Read on…

When it is known that a museum is interested in an object, it can drive up the price at auction. As we present art to the public, research art for our exhibitions, and add art to our collection we (in a roundabout way) lend an artistic “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to the selected objects. Those artists and works that we present often become more valuable on the open market simply because of the museum attention. If a museum did an exhibition on, say, Homer Laughlin “Fiestaware” ceramics, I’d bet that eBay sale prices would see an uptick. Can you imagine being in an auction and seeing a curator from the Met waving a bid card? A first thought would be “Oh, that painting must be good!” and you might add to the bidding frenzy!


Another reason I can’t disclose the object is that all museum decisions surrounding art acquisition need to be cleared through the Museum’s Acquisitions and Collections Committee before they are official. This brings me to the first step of the process: The Committee.

When a curator wants to purchase an object, say a historic photograph offered by an art gallery, they arrange with the seller to ship that object to the Museum on loan. This allows the curator to investigate its condition closely and compare it to similar objects in the collection. Curators speak to one another about the object’s pros and cons, the price considerations, and how it might be used in exhibitions. We often consult with colleagues at other institutions. We bring our thoughts to the Chief Curator, and he in turn often shares the possibilities with the Museum’s director. If the artwork passes muster and we are certain that we have the right object at a fair price, we formally present it to the Acquisitions and Collections Committee.

This committee, dubbed our “A&C” committee for short, is comprised of Museum Board members, other patrons of the Museum, and community art supporters. They meet four times per year with the mission statement to approve acquisitions and to advise the Director on the direction and maintenance of the permanent collection. With staff, they review and approve purchases, gifts, loans, and any deaccessioning of the permanent collection.

At the A&C committee meeting, the chief curator reports on the status of our acquisition funds (money that is given to the Museum explicitly for the purchase of art). The Museum’s Registrar reports on the status of all artworks that are currently on loan or to be loaned to other institutions. Each curator gives a report on gifts to the collection, saying a few brief words about each object. The board votes to approve gifts, and at that point the Museum mails the donor a “Deed of Gift” to be signed by both parties. For purchases, a more thorough presentation is required and the artwork is nearly always present in the room. We talk in depth about the merits of the object aesthetically and historically. We discuss condition and share thoughts from the conservator. We discuss the cost, and how it compares to going market rate. The Board votes to approve, or not approve, the curator’s recommendation for purchase. If approved, the monetary transaction takes place and the work is “acquired” to be part of the Museum’s permanent collection.

But the object I’m eager to acquire is to be auctioned. This means I don’t know an exact purchase price, I won’t be able to share the object with the committee in person, I personally won’t be able to see it until the week before the auction, and I have a very short window of time to get my approvals in line.

Mystery artist

In this particular case, I had been communicating with auction house staff about the particular artist. I was aware, in advance of the public notification, that this work would be available. With only a tiny snapshot JPEG image, I was convinced that this is probably something we want for our collection and upcoming projects, and my boss, the Chief Curator, is in agreement. We planned to make our case to the A&C committee meeting, telling them as much as we could about the artist and the object. I shared images of comparative objects that have been sold in recent years and our plans for exhibiting the object. I was thrilled that the committee trusted our instincts sight unseen, and they voted to allow us to bid at auction up to a certain amount, contingent that the condition is excellent when I inspect it in person.

This meeting was the first time that I had been involved in a negotiation about how to set a limit for bidding. Auctions set an estimate for what they think a work will sell for, but those can be wildly misleading. For this particular object, I had proof in my research that in recent years similar things sell both for far less and for far more than the estimate. A rule of thumb that we followed is to be prepared to bid up to 2 times the low estimate plus all fees.  So, if an object is estimated to sell for $2,000-$2,500, one might plan to spend double the low ($4,000) plus the buyer’s fee. A buyer’s fee (the fee to the auction house that a buyer pays) can be quite steep and is a major consideration in the cost. A sample fee schedule is:

25% of the hammer price up to and including $50,000, 20% of any amount in excess of $50,000 up to and including $1,000,000, and 12% of any amount in excess of $1,000,000.

So, that was step one. I have located a desired artwork, I have convinced my colleagues and the A&C committee that it is a great opportunity for our collection at (probably) the right price, and I have a set amount that we will be able to bid pending the object is all I expect it to be.

Stayed tuned for my next step: Thorough investigation of an object.

[Update 6/1/2011] This is the first post in a four part series. Part 2 detailed a trip to the auction preview to investigate the object’s condition.  Part 3 detailed bidding at auction. Part 4 reveals the object and details cataloging it into the Collection.

Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

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