Behind the Bidding
A History PhD in an Auction House
“Sold.” Down goes the gavel, and a lucky bidder has purchased a late 19th-century English manuscript. In my fast-paced work at the auction house Bonhams, this was a familiar sound. As a specialist in Judaica, I assembled collections to be sold, including items ranging from a Robert Motherwell “study” (The Walls of the Temple) to a 1947 Hebrew-language Mickey Mouse comic from Tel Aviv. But how did I go from a PhD in ancient history to the professional world of the commercial art market?
When people ask about my career path after earning my PhD, I can’t begin on the day after my dissertation defense. Instead, my career combines interests that go back to my childhood. I have memories of handling my grandparents’ Murano glass paperweights and eating breakfast on a George Nakashima table, contributing to my interest in art collecting. I was motivated to ask about history by the Andy Warhol prints of Annie Oakley and Teddy Roosevelt that hung on the walls of my extended family’s house.
I became seriously interested in the world of auction houses when I was an undergraduate. As a history major, I nerded out over obscure details of ancient and medieval history, which must have seemed odd to friends who were following linear career trajectories into the professions. But I too wanted my history degree to be practical. In November 1998, my world was shaken at a Rutgers University conference, “Art, Antiquity, and the Law.” As I listened, I wanted to learn more about auction houses and the sale of objects, not to mention the looting of art and historical artifacts. I had a college friend who had landed an internship at a major auction house. I was ignorant but intrigued about what this might entail. So, like a curious historian, I asked him questions and e-mailed all the auction houses about their education programs and temp positions.
My story is therefore not one of finishing a single program and getting a job. Prior to completing my graduate degrees, I attended Sotheby’s Institute of Art’s yearlong intensive course in American fine and decorative art. The Appraisers Association of America allowed me to initiate the technical process of becoming a professional appraiser. While at Rutgers and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where I earned my PhD in ancient history, I translated and analyzed the primary texts of Livy and Pliny the Elder, examined Roman coins, and cataloged Latin inscriptions for a digital epigraphy project. I completed my dissertation at CUNY; it was published as Color-Terms in Social and Cultural Context in Ancient Rome (Gorgias Press, 2013). As an ancient historian, I was a visiting assistant professor at the College of New Jersey for two years.
My first experience in an auction house was an internship in Sotheby’s Silver, Paperweights, and Judaica departments, right after I earned my BA. I produced written catalog entries for consigned pieces, work for which I could receive no credit. Each catalog entry includes a description, date, maker’s name, materials, provenance, and publication background. In many cases, this vital information will increase the value of the piece. Preparing a catalog entry often involved many trips to the New York Public Library to hunt down primary sources—and to correct preconceived notions about the history and religious functions of some pieces. I discovered that a background in fine arts or art history is not a prerequisite for a job in an auction house. In many ways, my research methods in history were identical to the way that I would research a piece to be cataloged for a lot in a sale.
My experience in the auction house also influenced my approach to teaching, as I tried to introduce my students at the College of New Jersey to the field of history. It became vital for me to show them primary sources and what texts really looked like in their original covers, and even how they smelled. The way I approached prospective consignors and clients resembled the way I approached my students: encouraging their enthusiasm while warning them of limitations.
Researching existing scholarship on specific objects and finding how comparable works had sold were tasks very much like preparing the historiography section of my dissertation. But I was not prepared for how fast an auction house moves. There are often more than 300 lots in a single sale. One must deal with several specialist departments and field constant e-mails from consignors. I still get queasy thinking about working the phone bids. Calling people from around the world at a specific time to make sure they are placing their bids requires a lot of coordination, communication skills, and patience. In one case, it was impossible to get in touch with a client in Cape Town after many phone calls; the lot had already moved on, and the client lost a chance to own a rare scientific treatise. I remember not sleeping well that night.
Even with my degrees and credentials in history and appraisal, it took many tries and interviews before I got my first chance to work in a big auction house. Bonhams first interviewed me in 2008 for a consulting position, but I was not hired as a full-time specialist (in its Books and Manuscripts Department) until 2013. Additionally, credentials did not mean I was prepared for a job in business. An auction house may employ lots of experts on 18th-century documents, but it still requires budgets, purchase orders, a client services department, and much else. Part of my work involved building up a client base for the Judaica section of the department. Forming a marketing campaign and writing proposals to acquire other collections were probably the most useful skills that I learned on the job.
In many ways, my historical research methods as a PhD were identical to those that I used to research a piece for sale.
Working and handling material in Judaica was right up my alley as a historian. One of my most thrilling moments was searching through the Smithsonian Archives of American Art to find a picture of Marcus C. Illions in his studio, where he carved wooden horses for carousels, then matching some of the pieces in the picture with the wood lions that were in my Judaica sale. The job also involved traveling to people’s homes and looking through storage containers. One consignor had the largest collection of synagogue woodcarvings dating from 1890 to the 1930s. Because pieces below the $1,500 threshold were accepted for sales of Judaica, I could also have a little more fun with kitschy items, such as advertisement clocks from Wilno Kosher Products and a group of Kosher-marked china from the Queen Mary.
In the world of the auction house, employment is a fluid path. It is not uncommon for an appraiser to freelance for a few years and then join up with an auction house. I was in a very rare position because I had never functioned as a broker or a dealer of artwork and therefore avoided any conflict of interest. As an appraiser, I learned that one should adhere to the venerable and ethical practice of not appraising or dealing with any property that I intend to sell. I do not collect Judaica (it’s too expensive, and there are too many fakes on the market), books, historical manuscripts and ephemera (they take up too much space and are too expensive to maintain), or antiquities (do I really need to say why?).
Little did I know that when I was on the job, I would meet people who were genuinely interested in my work in ancient history, which opened doors to other venues for me, such as appraising antique coins. My work wasn’t all about commerce, either: I often persuaded consignors to donate their valuable historical items to museums or synagogue collections rather than selling them, so that they could be properly cared for and available to the public for study and appreciation. Making personal connections is truly valuable for an art business: whether it’s a first-time buyer or a consignor, each person gets to experience the magic and thrill of owning a special object and participating in a piece of history. Every lot and consignment at an auction has a narrative; it will not be the last time the piece changes hands, so its story goes on.
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Rachael B. Goldman holds a BA and an MA in history and classics from Rutgers University. She holds a PhD in history from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Color-Terms in Social and Cultural Context in Ancient Rome (2013) and the editor of Essays in Global Color History: Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum (2016). Goldman has taught at Rutgers University, Adelphi University, and the College of New Jersey. She is a consultant for Judaica at Bonhams, New York, and is a grants specialist at Rutgers University.
Tags: Career Paths Career Diversity for Historians Cultural History
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