Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 2

Wright's auction preview gallery. Photo by the author.

With my pre-approval in line and my auction catalog in hand, the next step in buying art at auction was to travel to Chicago for personal inspection. About a week before a sale, lots become available for prospective buyers (and the merely curious) to view in person.

The object was being sold by Wright, an auction house specializing in premier modern and contemporary design.  While in Wright’s cavernous warehouse of treasures, I took the opportunity to investigate designs including a scrapbook of Wiener Werkstätte lace designs, a collection of Art Deco microphones, a delicate Wharton Esherick chair, and a felt Gianni Ruffi La Cova (nest) chair.

Think you aren’t welcome to snoop around like this in an auction house? Think again!

One of the little known secrets of the art world is that you can see spectacular art up close and free of charge. For example, in December 2007 I was in New York City and popped in to Sotheby’s auction house to view one of the most significant documents of all history–a copy of the Magna Carta! It was just me, a no-nonsense security guard, and a parchment sheet with medieval Latin that sold a few days later for 21.3 million dollars.

During an auction preview, it is expected–encouraged!– that prospective buyers will visit and closely inspect the goods.

For a curator, this is a wonderful opportunity to caress the wood surface of a George Nakashima Conoid chair, to imagine pouring water from Peter Muller-Munk’s streamlined Normandie Pitcher, or test out the ergonomic qualities of a pre-production Eames DAX fiberglas chair.

Within reason, an auction preview is a like a museum that allows careful touching.

Wright auction

I love the eclectic mixing of designs you’ll see at the preview–for instance (as shown in the photo at left) Walter Dorwin Teague’s 1934 Bluebird radio sitting on top of a Paul Evans c. 1975 Cityscape cabinet with Ettore Sottsass signed and dated 1973 teapot lithographs hanging on the wall above!

After a few minutes of giddy exploratory fun, I located the object I was there to inspect and got down to business.

This particular object I was looking at is composed of many parts. I closely inspected each, taking careful notes and thorough photographs of every angle. My notes were as vague as “some minor soiling” to as detailed as “3.5 inch hairline crack” or “1/16th inch diameter chip on underside of foot.”

My notes and photographs allowed me to later review the condition with the Museum’s objects conservator. She advised as to what chips and stains could be corrected or cleaned, and which we would have to consider as part of the object permanently. The current attitude in art conservation is more “hands off” than “hands on.” I was in a conversation recently with the Museum’s Senior Conservator about the difference between conservation (meaning stabilizing the condition and preventing further damage) and restoration (meaning actively repairing and creating material).

These details about condition gave us a better idea of what an appropriate bid price would be. Though the Acquisitions & Collections (A&C) committee had given pre-approval to spend up to a specified amount, that approval was trusting our judgment to assess condition and to spend the money accordingly.

Wright auction

Our goal for condition in the Museum is the pristine state, but it is known that many objects meant for function have often endured a life of use.  A teapot might show tea stains. The legs of a chair might show scratches from shoes, brooms, or puppies. Any type of upholstery is usually damaged by human oils or sunlight. A chip or ding here and there does not rule out an object for inclusion in a Museum collection, but each one is a factor in the careful consideration of that object’s contribution to the collection.

It was at this point in the process that I had to continually remind myself to be objective about the artwork. I had already dedicated a great deal of time to researching this artist and this object, both of which I loved. I wholeheartedly wanted the object to be a fit for the Milwaukee Art Museum collection, so it was difficult to avoid moving full steam ahead with enthusiasm.

Instead, I had to force myself to step back and objectively discuss whether this is THE perfect example of the object for the Museum collection. I shared images with the collection’s Chief Curator, with the conservators, and with colleagues, discussing: Will a better version become available? Will a better-priced version come along? If we were to have only one artwork representing this artist in the Museum collection, would this one be the one? If bidding drives the price higher than anticipated, how much do we think is appropriate to spend?

Wright auction

Also, for me, one of the deciding factors in favor of this object is that I find the work more attractive in person than I had in the photograph. Auction houses produce dazzling catalogs and employ talented photographers. They are in the business of making an object look as beautiful as possible, and dramatic lighting can camouflage scratches and wear. Sometimes when you meet the artwork in person, your response is a disappointed “oh.” In this case, however, the photography did not exaggerate the beauty of this object. In person the colors seemed richer and deeper and my eyes danced around the shapes in three dimensions.

Finally, our team decided that this particular object was the right one for the Museum: the condition was nearly perfect and the work could visually tell its story in a gallery. We were willing to bid museum art acquisition funds up to a level that was consistent with recent auction results for similar objects.

Stay tuned for Part 3, when we’ll walk through what happens when you register at an auction and make a bid. (Hint: Palms get sweaty!)

[Update 6/1/2011] This is the second post in a four part series. Part 1 detailed the steps I took to get pre-approval to purchase artwork for the Museum at auction.  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.

6 replies on “Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 2”

I have always been nervous about the process of buying art at an auction. Not knowing the process and how it was done made it a bit intimidating. After reading your article on how you approach it made me feel easier to add to my collection. I found it interesting to learn how a museum goes about the steps involved.

Dear Steven,
Thanks for checking out our Museum blog and leaving a comment! Trust me, if I can calm my nerves to purchase at auction, anyone can. Of course, as the series of articles points out, the complexities of purchasing for a Museum presents so many steps that the actual paddle is a breeze!
-Mel Buchanan

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