Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction—Part 3 (The Auction!)

The day of the auction may have dawned Wisconsin spring gray, but to me skies were blue, birds were chirping, and the Amtrak train to Chicago was led by seventy-six trombones.

I had located an object perfect for the Museum collection, gained enthusiastic approval from the Collections and Acquisitions Committee, determined that the object’s condition was museum worthy, set an appropriate bidding limit, and was now about to face that split second at the live auction when we’d know if the object would become part of the Milwaukee Art Museum, or go to another bidder.

No, I wasn’t nervous at all.

First step upon arrival was to check-in and register for the auction. I verified details of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s account, making certain that all our contact information was up-to-date and that we were to be directly billed for any purchases.  Because I had arrived an hour and a half before the auction, I was given my choice of bid paddle numbers. Any number I’d like between 200 and 300? I could think of nothing significant or lucky for any of those numbers, so I witlessly selected 202.

Our object lot was going to be the 170th object auctioned that afternoon. If you estimate that an auction moves about one object per minute, I knew that I was going to be sitting in the sale room for several hours at best. That gave me plenty of time to study the workings of the auction, and plenty of time to enjoy the free coffee, cookies, and excellent sandwiches.

The auction started and I found a seat, following my curatorial colleagues’ advice to situate myself in the middle of the room and near an aisle for clear communication.

As the auctioneer, Richard Wright, presented each object for sale, its image and lot number appeared on the digital screen behind him. He opened with a starting bid “from the books” and scanned the room for bid-signaling activity, including from the long line of his staff manning the phones and computers.

Phones and computers? Yes–at any given time, there were perhaps 10 or 15 in-the-flesh bidders in the sale room, but there were always just as many Wright staff manning a long bank of phones and computers for off-site bidders. If you look at the image of the sale room at top, the back-lit counter along the right side was the line where Wright staff sat. Murmuring behind the auctioneer’s constant chatter and prompting for bids was the smooth sound of staff making calls to get bidders on the line for upcoming lots.

I learned the cadence of the auctioneer. I studied how he followed bid increments so I knew what to expect when my lot came around. The catalog noted that the bids would rise incrementally by $250 up to $5,000, and then rise by $500 increments, and then jumping to $1,000 increments at $10,000. Was this always true? I needed to know if this ever modified, because when it came time for me to bid, I wanted to anticipate the increments so I could be certain that I’d land on my highest possible bid, were that to be the case.

I also learned that I play with my hair, unnerving when the wrong motion can have the entire room looking at you to back up a $38,000 bid for a Pierre Jeanneret chair.

I observed that (if you want to blend in) you don’t actually wave the paddle to bid. You make confident eye contact and a hand signal or nod to the auctioneer, and after you’ve become the last bidder standing and the gavel has pounded with the final bid amount, only then do you show your bid paddle so they can record your account number. The sale ends with the auctioneer definitively saying “Thank you bidder 202” so there is no confusion.

The first hour of the auction was tremendously exciting. I recorded the sale price for every lot in my catalog, and watched with curiosity who was purchasing what, and what patterns emerged. The second and third hours, I may have missed a few lots as I checked in with work email and updated colleagues on our progress. And then, sometime during the fourth hour, I could gauge my approaching lot as my palms sweated. I began senselessly fidgeting with my belongings, arranging papers, and then rearranging them. As we were about five lots away, I felt a thunderous heartbeat in the back of my throat. And in a flash, it was time.

The auctioneer opened bids on our lot, and after four hours I was poised for action! I followed advice to “let things get started”, so instead of jumping out of my seat, I sat and let the auctioneer look around the room. And then, he took a bid from the phone!

I bid in retaliation.

Phone bid.

I, after feigning contemplation, bid again.


Phone bid.

I bid, confidently this time.

Phone bid.

And back to me, I bid resolutely!

And then I observed quiet conversation between the Wright employee and the phone bidder, and then the Wright staff member shook his head no. The auctioneer asked around the room for additional bids, and looked back to me. I grinned. He gave last call, and pounded the gavel at a sale price that was right within the estimate. “Thank you bidder 202”.

I had just purchased art at auction for the museum.

Within a minute, I had emailed the good news back to the Museum offices.

Stay tuned for Part 4, when we’ll walk through what happens when the object arrives at the Museum and (gasp!) reveal what the object is!

[Update 6/1/2011] This is the third 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 2 detailed a trip to the auction preview to investigate the object’s condition.  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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