An Insider Account of Sotheby’s
An employee at Sotheby’s New York has just published an entertaining account of life inside the storied auction house. There are no great surprises there, but it is quite well-written.
The auction scene is considered to be the tiny tip of the massive invisible iceberg that is today’s international art market, as galleries, dealers and private collectors, the bulk of the market, are loathe to discuss how much money is actually changing hands, while auction houses thrive on the publication of prices. Some of the larger houses are publicly listed now, so we know not only how much a certain dead artist’s works garnered in the auctions last year, but also that Sotheby’s CEO made nearly $6 million in 2010.
Despite that, the overall auction culture, both in-house and among frequent bidders, is still shrouded with an aura of secrecy. While revealing no major secrets, this essay tells us that their in-house art handlers are actually members of the Teamsters Union, and are faced with a lockout despite record profits at the auction house. It also verifies the stereotype of the hot auction girl, “perpetually engaged, never married,” as the author puts it, who is dangled like bait in front of potential consignors and bidders.
There’s also this gem about writing art prose for the catalog:
I sprinkled about twenty adjectives (“fey,” “gestural,” “restrained”) amid a small repertory of active verbs (“explore,” “trace,” “question” ). I inserted the phrases “negative space,” “balanced composition,” and “challenges the viewer” every so often. “X’s lyrical abstraction and visual vocabulary—which is marked by dogged muscularity and a singular preoccupation with the formal qualities of light—ushered in some of the most important art to hit the postwar market in decades.” I described impasto—paint thickly applied to a canvas, often with a palette knife—almost pornographically and joked with friends on Gchat that I was being paid to write pulp. Pulp was exactly what I was writing. It was embarrassingly easy, and might have been the only truly dishonest part of the Sotheby’s enterprise. In most ways, the auction house is unshackled from intellectual pretense by its pure attention to the marketplace. Through its catalogue copy (and for a time, through me), it makes one small concession to the art world’s native tongue.
As someone who has to deal with art prose every day, this is exactly what it feels like.