Not every person employed in the arts world has to be an accomplished artist in the truest sense of the word as Robin Starr is proving. Starr isn’t a painter or a graphic designer, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t intimately involved in the art world. Starr is an art appraiser and holds a Master’s degree from the esteemed Williams College in art history. Instead of paintbrushes and design software, uses research, intimate art knowledge, and hard work to determine the condition of the works of art and what their value is. It may not sound as sexy as creating the work of art yourself, but Starr’s job is different every day and some incredible art still passes her desk every day, so she isn’t exactly complaining about her line of work.
Art appraisal and art appraisers are an oft-forgotten about part of the art world and that is why we felt it was so important to interview Starr, hear about her responsibilities and experiences as an art appraiser, and give interested readers and opportunity to learn about the less glamorous but just as important jobs in the art world. So read on to find out how Starr got her start, what she would do differently if she could go back in time, and what her typical day looks like. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the read as well.
How did you first become interested in becoming an art appraiser and auctioneer?
I fell into the job. I had just finished the Masters program in Art History at Williams College in Massachusetts and wanted to get some work experience before continuing on for my PhD. My plan was to work for a few years, earn a little money to pay off some student loans, then go back to school to study medieval architecture.
At what point did you first realize that you would make a career out of art appraising?
I fell in love with the job very quickly. My job is to look at art all day long. I am constantly meeting with clients, looking at images, and cataloging the objects that come into Skinner for auction. Most of the time I’m working with the actual works. I can pick them up, handle them, examine the backs. It sure beat looking at slides and pictures in books. And it changes constantly. One minute I’m looking at a Rembrandt etching; the next it’s a Motherwell lithograph; then it’s on to a Frieseke oil or a Thomas Hart Benton watercolor. I’ve been here since 1987, and I’m still seeing new things and learning virtually every day. That’s a good job.
What kind of education or training helped you get to where you are today?
Obviously having a broad knowledge of art history, but the clincher was having some knowledge of art conservation. At Williams College I interned at the lab associated with the Clark Art Institute, so when it came to assessing the condition issues of works of art and accounting for how any condition issues might affect value, it came very naturally.
Can you describe your first job as an art appraiser and auctioneer?
I started here at Skinner as a junior cataloger – researching and cataloging works of art for auction. I’ve been here ever since, and have slowly climbed the ladder. Now I’m the Director of American & European Works of Art.
You also do appraising and cataloging for Skinner? Can you tell us about your role in this part of your job?
Cataloging is how I used to spend most of my time. As I’ve moved up, my focus has shifted to appraising works and getting them into Skinner on consignment.
What skills as an art appraiser and auctioneer do you think have really made you a success in the industry?
Seeing as a cataloger you are seeing hundreds of works of art every week and if you’re paying attention you are constantly building up a mental visual data base of all of those works. I’m also a geek, so I love research.
What are your favorite things about being an art director?
It’s still seeing the art. I enjoy going “on the hunt” to get great works consigned to our auctions; I like the huge variety of putting a successful auction together, but ultimately it comes down to the art.
Could you give us a 9-5 of your average work day?
Sadly it isn’t 9 to 5, but it is extremely varied. I spend much of my time working with clients and determining the values of their works of art for consignment. Sometimes I go on house call to private collectors, dealers, or collection institutions; sometimes I evaluate works from photographs or digital images; sometimes clients come to Skinner with their items. This is how most of my time is spent.
I also cataloged objects – primarily prints at this point, although I started with paintings. Some of cataloging is simply describing an object, but the rest is making certain its authentic (that’s the research part). As Director I’m also responsible for much of the marketing of the department including social media. I attend openings and shows. I also lecture and am an auctioneer for both Skinner auctions and various charity events. I have also appeared on the Antiques Roadshow.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice starting out what would it be?
Get more experience (internships and work-studies) while you’re still in school. There are so many people with B.A.s in Art History, that without more on your resume, it’s tough to get into an auction house. If appraising is your goal, go to auctions and shops…look at the merchandise, and ask questions. Take an appraisal certificate or class.
Any final words of wisdom for aspiring art auctioneers and appraisers?
Travel and go to museums constantly – it can only enrich you.