Digging into the Stories of Unique Objects and Private Collections
Do you like art or history? Could you consider yourself a connoisseur of anything? Do you love The Antiques Roadshow or flea market hunting? If so, a career in the antiques and fine art auction industry might be perfect for you. I was drawn to stories from the past and jumped back and forth between English and History majors while at Hamilton. I chose History, and it was a Hamilton professor, Chris Hill, who recommended that I look into public history when I graduated. Public history, a graduate program that teaches master’s level history courses combined with practical training in non-academic careers, broadened my horizons to all of the other options out there for history enthusiasts who don’t see themselves as teachers or professors.
Public historians are trained in all types of museum careers, but they could also learn to be historic preservationists, national park rangers, tour guides, conservationists, consultants, archivists, cultural resource managers, librarians, and anything else you can dream up relating to the public presentation of history. Your degree is what you make it, particularly through the selection of a relevant institution and internships to get hands-on training in your desired direction. I thought my direction was museum curation, but I had always admired the specialists at Christie’s and Sotheby’s and when a startup auction house took me on as an intern, I got my first taste of the variety, excitement, and fast-paced nature of auction houses.
Similar to researching objects as a museum curator, auction catalogers delve into the history and authenticity of objects to figure out what they are and how much they are worth. Monitoring the market, working with clients to secure collections, looking at large numbers of pieces each day, and keeping sales in mind appealed to my competitive side and presented an alternative to the museum world. I took a job cataloging for the startup, advanced to a larger company after a few years, and have since become an auction consultant and writer with the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.
Considering the auction world but don’t know where you would fit within it? Auction houses hire catalogers, also known as specialists, for every category of fine and decorative arts. I am a generalist—someone who knows a little about everything. However, there is a great deal of merit to honing in on something that you love and becoming an expert. Specialists could have studied a particular type of art, worked with a concentrated collection in some capacity, or have some other targeted experience that would translate into an intimate knowledge of one sector of the antique or art world. Auction galleries also employ auctioneers, the ringleaders and salespeople of the company, and if this appeals to you, look into your state’s auctioneering laws. Often, a company will sponsor young auctioneer enthusiasts in an apprentice program until trained enough to pass a state auctioneer exam. Other career options in the industry include marketing professionals, gallery designers, photographers, legal and estate specialists, and a large number of additional positions depending on the size of the company.
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While I will always love digging into the stories of unique objects and private collections, careers in auctions are not for everyone. The antiques market has been on a downward slope, making growth difficult for all but the most successful companies. Salaries are similar to museum jobs, making these positions labors of love. However, if you dream of being the authority on something old or selling the next fine collection, there are opportunities available in this non-traditional field. The variety cannot be beat and I am still amazed on a daily basis. I’ve handled letters written by Alexander Hamilton, Hudson River School paintings, the earliest maps of America, and the finest quality diamonds. The auction world is in transition and is awaiting the next generation of leaders to take on the challenge, embrace its changing demographics, and bring this tradition-heavy industry back to market relevance. As tastes change, the auction industry evolves, making an influx of top talent necessary. Hamilton students should definitely apply.