How to Build an Art Career at an Auction HouseAdvice From the Trenches

Lady sitting on a bench in front of a modern art installation at an art gallery or museum

We conducted an interview of a professional that works at major auction house in New York City. They provided the answers to the following questions about an auction house career.

1. Do I need to major in Art History to work at an auction house?

The short answer is yes. Auction houses prefer that you at least minor in Art History. An Art History or Fine Arts major is even highly valued in marketing functions. The exception to this rule is jobs in support functions like finance or technology. While it would be great if candidates had a double major in Art History and Accounting, that’s not required for all of the finance functions the auction houses need to fill.

Auction houses seek double majors in Art History and a language. This is especially true if the language you majored in is French.

If you did not major in Art History or Fine Arts, you could potentially pursue further studies to improve your chances of breaking into the art world. NYU and Columbia have great post-grad programs. Moreover, Sotheby’s has their own Sotheby’s Institute of Art, as does Christie’s.

2. What types of skills or traits make a successful entry-level candidate?

For entry-level positions like Assistants, Administrators, and Junior Cataloguers, a passion for the arts is critical. Due to the client facing nature of the business, interpersonal skills are also important.

For Cataloguers and Researchers, the auction houses tend place significant weight on academic credentials. Writing skills are of critical importance, and you will often be asked to provide a writing sample during the interview process. The sample can be derived from your dissertation or other academic essays. During the interview process you could be asked to chronologically order 10 to 12 works of art. Additionally, you may be asked to catalogue 1 to 2 works of art, citing the dimensions, medium, and signature, and be asked to complete a small note entry on the artist’s style and period.

If you are interviewing within a specific specialty department, you may be asked questions about recent sales, market trends and/or specific artists relating to that specialty.

3. What are some of the different career paths you can take?

There are two main career tracks within specialty departments at an auction house. The specialist track and the business track.

Entry-level jobs on the specialist side are referred to as Junior Cataloguer and Researcher positions. These are client facing and business-generating positions. The primary function of these roles is to research and catalogue all property for each auction (including sourcing provenance, exhibition history, literature and outside expertise). One’s career along the specialist track progresses by gaining expertise and can take you to titles of Specialist, Head of Sale and Director.

Entry-level jobs on the business track are the administrator or business manager positions. While considered extremely important within auction houses, these roles are not considered as “glamorous” or “high profile”. They handle responsibilities like contracts, shipping and logistics, and inventory management. The business manager role encompasses a more robust knowledge of the auction process and managing the financial aspects of all consignment deals.

4. What are the most competitive divisions of the auction house to recruit into?

Typically, the Contemporary Art and the Impressionist & Modern departments tend to be the most competitive to recruit into. They are the major revenue generators, and together account for more than half the revenue of most houses.

The larger auction houses do allow for some mobility across divisions though it’s not altogether common. For example, you can start your career in a department like Old Masters, 19th Century, Jewelry, Watches, or Wine and then eventually move into a position in Contemporary or Impressionist & Modern Art.

5. Can I make a great living?

Yes, but it will take some time and patience. Starting salaries at auction houses aren’t typically attractive and many of these jobs are located in major cities like New York and London where the cost of living is really high.

That said, as your career progresses and you gain tenure and expertise, there is significant potential for earnings growth. To do so it is vital to build your client base. Moreover the recent rise in private sales can also provide significant earnings opportunities for experienced professionals. Positions like specialist and senior business manager can earn upwards of $80k a year.

If you are interested in a career in art, check out our job channels below!

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Tapwage occasionally gets authors to write candidly about their career transitions, and experiences at specific companies. In this case, the author has chosen to remain anonymous.