Auction houses are at the very heart of the art market. In their sales rooms collecting trends are established, with buyers travelling across the world to bid on major lots, ranging from Renaissance paintings to Contemporary prints. I remember sitting in the room at Sotheby’s when the hammer hit £23.7m on Monet’s 1908 oil painting Le Grand Canal. The high prices and glamour make it easy to forget how much work happens before the showcase sale event, and by whom. As many auction houses are large organisations, this means that there are very varied job roles, from communications, marketing and advertising, to art shippers, client representatives and IT staff. Everyone has heard of the auctioneer, but what else can you do?
This is a list of the most popular auction house roles available:
Administrator – coordinates various activities, such as seller agreements, shipping and logistics, especially during busy sale periods. Requires exceptional time-management and organisation skills.
Auctioneer – appraises and evaluates items to determine starting bid, organizes and runs auction sales. Requires numeracy, interpersonal and communication skills, commercial awareness, and a voice to project the infamous ‘going, going, gone…”.
Cataloguer/Researcher – researches and writes about items for sale; fully involved in catalogue production. Will have a strong interest in art history, excellent written skills and attention to detail. This is often an entry point for graduates wanting to get started in the auction house.
Client Service Representative – handles client queries in person, on telephone, and via email as they relate to all transactional aspects of bidding, buying, selling and locating lots for sales. Needs a personable and professional manner, and additional languages are highly desirable.
Registrar – Oversees shipping of lots, from time of arrival at auction house until they are sold and released to client. Closely works with specialist departments, shipping team and client services. Requires excellent time-management and organisation skills.
Specialist – responsible for business-getting, finding and appraising lots, leading cataloguing, developing and maintaining clients. Often starts working as a cataloguer/researcher first. Usually has an additional language, alongside commercial awareness, communication, interpersonal and negotiation skills.
Technician– responsible for the safe receiving, handling, storage, packing, transfer and releasing of a wide variety of lots; assists in sale room during sales. Requires practical skills, alongside specialist knowledge of art handling and conservation issues as well as teamwork.
With fast-paced developments in the digital world, auction houses are bringing their saleroom, catalogues and auctions online. Many auction houses now utilise live auction webcasting and the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s even hold online-only auctions across a range of departments. There is also a new breed of online auction houses, such as Paddle8, Artsy and Artnet, whose web-based sales make selling and collecting accessible to the general public. With this in mind, digital innovation will be a key skill for auction house employees of the future.
Professionals in this sector will have a strong interest in art and/or antiques as a business. However, while many will have studied art history, business, economics and language graduates are also often sought after. As the larger auction houses have several offices worldwide, a second language is highly desirable.
Most auctioneers and senior specialists will have climbed the career ladder that takes them from department administrator to registrar to researcher and then specialist. They then build a client base that they enjoy working with.
Doing a masters or completing a postgraduate qualification could help you develop specific skills and specialised knowledge that the industry is looking for. However, more important is gaining some work experience in this competitive industry.
How do I find work experience in an auction house?
Pre-entry work experience is extremely desirable and enables you to make some valuable contacts to use when you’re looking for a permanent role. It will also provide you with an understanding of how the art business of an auction house works. There are work experience and internship schemes in place at most well-established, large auction houses. With smaller organisations, you can make speculative applications – just make sure you express an interest in their areas of expertise.
Sotheby’s – have a paid graduate internship programme in London, Hong Kong and New York:
Christie’s – provides successful applicants with 2 weeks work experience within one department. There are also worldwide graduate internships and they have recently launched a graduate programme:
Bonhams – offer ad-hoc internships in different departments. You can check here:
Sophie Macpherson Ltd – are a London-based recruitment agency specialising in international opportunities in the art world:
Antiques Trade Gazette – the magazine has a job listing page, with auction house roles: