Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

Acquiring Art at Auction— Part 4 (It’s a Tea Service!)

Grete Marks tea service

The papers are signed and I can say it: The Milwaukee Art Museum welcomed into its permanent collection a Tea Service designed by Margarete Heymann Löbenstein Marks.

After we purchased the work at auction two months ago and the wire transfer payment was complete, several of the Museum’s art preparators traveled to Chicago to pack the ceramic pieces carefully and adeptly deliver them to the Museum’s art vault. I patiently waited a few weeks for the next scheduled meeting of the Museum’s Acquisitions & Collections Committee, when I was able to share the artwork in person.

In the final act of acquiring artwork for the permanent collection, the Museum’s Chief Curator, Director, and the Chair of the A&C Committee signed the paperwork that officially make the object part of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

And now I can say it: Welcome to Milwaukee, Grete Marks!

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.

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!

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!