How to Become a Fine Arts Auctioneer

01

INTRODUCTION TO AUCTIONEERING

Fine art is a visual art created for intellectual and aesthetic purposes, which is typically judged for its meaningfulness, appeal, worth, and beauty.  Fine art consists of sculpture, photography, calligraphy, architecture, paintings and drawings or sketches, printmaking, music, poetry, film, design, dance, and theater. 

Fine art auctioneering is the sale of art by highly skilled professional auctioneers who take bids and sell a variety of items at a live event called an auction.  Commonly, a catalog that lists all items for sale will be available to attendees at the onset of an auction. 

A fine arts auction is one of the most enticing and most mysterious ways of collecting artwork for many people.  From the secretive bidding to the behind-the-scenes whispering, an auction can be fun and exciting, and a great way to collect works of art from some very talented people, including Pablo Picasso, whose Les Femmes d’Alger painting sold for $179.4 million in 2015; the highest price ever paid for a piece of art at an auction.  Even today, Pablo Picasso’s works remain the most coveted art at auction. 

Individuals who wish to enter this field and work as a fine arts auctioneer must become both a fine arts specialist and a shrewd businessperson. A passion for fine art is also required because in order to valuate pieces of art, you must first appreciate their value.  Many fine arts auctioneers specialize in the type of art they sell. Professionals may work exclusively with paintings from the 1800’s or contemporary works of art.  Others will only sell sculpture or photography.  Either way, they are typically very knowledgeable about the artwork they sell, and may even be collectors or appraisers themselves. 

Job duties vary but can include examining art pieces to assess their condition, quality, age, and origin, confer with historians and experts, provide valuations of artwork, prepare catalogs for attendees, ensure the authenticity of artwork and proof of ownership and keep details records of all pieces.

02

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

For centuries, society’s elite have attended fine arts auctions.  At that time, auctions were typically small, private affairs only attended by those who fully understood the market. Many attendees only showed up for the sole purpose to buy fine art inexpensively, and resell it at a higher price, which led to the art world’s ‘secondary market’.  (A secondary market is art that’s put up for sale by a collector or dealer, and not by the artist).  It wasn’t until fairly recently (the 1970’s) that auctions really started to catch on and have a larger impact on the art world.  Although the auction market tanked in the early 1990’s, since then the price of sales and the importance of auctions as a way to buy artwork not readily available elsewhere has steadily increased. 

When an auction house acquires a piece of artwork, a fine arts auctioneer will appraise the piece and examine it to determine its value. He or she will also conduct research on the piece of art to create estimates of what it might sell for at auction.  Pieces are then gathered and featured in a catalog, and there may also be a presale exhibition where the public can view the groups of works.  At the auction, each piece is bid on separately. If it doesn’t receive any bids or doesn’t’ reach a reserve price, it is bought-in.  If the piece of artwork is sold, the buyer is reasonable for the hammer price and buyer’s premium, plus any taxes.  The auction house takes a commission, which is deducted from the final price, with the rest of the proceeds going to the consignor. 

The fine arts auctioneer plays a vital role in every step of an auction; from gathering items for sale, sorting them into lots, and preparing a sale bill that advertises the location and date of the auction, to researching items for authenticity and value, and setting up the sound system.  And, while ‘bid-calling’ or the ‘auction chant’ might stand out as the most memorable part of an auction, it is really only a small part of the job.  Besides finding and appraising fine art, an auctioneer will also spend a lot of time finding clients and building relationships, and studying the market.  A fine arts auctioneer must also have a complete understanding of any laws that may govern the sale of a particular item, such as if an item is part of an estate or is available because of bankruptcy.

On auction day, a fine arts auctioneer must be both salesman and entertainer and will need a great deal of stamina and energy to get through the day. A sense of humor is also important as it can put an audience at ease and also build a following because an auctioneer who can ‘put on a show’ will probably draw larger crowds for the next sale.  Auctioneers must have a strong voice and good communication skills, confidence, and enjoy being in the spotlight. But, most importantly, they need a strong background and advanced knowledge in fine art, which can come from earning a degree, interning, or becoming an apprentice.

03

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE THE CUT?

Although a degree is not necessary to make it as a fine arts auctioneer, many auctioneers receive training at specialized schools or earn a degree in art history to learn the trade and obtain licenses. The fine arts auctioneer field is highly specialized and requires a great deal of knowledge about art and the art world.  It also requires a broad knowledge of history, cultures, artists, ethics, law, and communications.  After all, there is little room for error. A typo in a catalog can make a 1649 Rembrandt a 1946 Rembandt, cutting its value in half and bewildering auction attendees. It also pays to be bilingual or multilingual as many of the larger auction houses have locations around the world.

The National Auctioneers Association (NAA) reports that 35 percent of all auctioneers hold degrees, while another 36 percent have some college experience.  But, becoming an expert in fine arts is the key to success in this competitive market. To become a highly specialized fine arts auctioneer, a graduate degree or even a doctorate may be required.  Many individuals who work in art auction houses are also art appraisers who are certified by professional art associations, such as the American Society of Appraisers (ASA), Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), or Private Art Dealers Association (PADA), among others.

Individuals can also work as an apprentice to an experienced professional or enroll in online distance-learning courses. In addition, the NAA also provides a list of ‘auction schools’ throughout the US that teach bid calling, marketing and sales, and training on how to start and operate an auction business.  They also teach students how to work government and estate auctions, appraisal skills, and how to deal with tax issues.

Another way to learn about this filed and gain valuable knowledge is to attend auctions, work for an auction company, intern while in school at a gallery or fine arts auction house. With training, there are even opportunities to become a fine art auctioneer aboard a cruise ship.

To gain experience, individuals can donate their time by auctioneering at charity events. Although you won’t get paid, it is a great way to network and start earning a reputation.

As in most art fields, working hard and submerging yourself in the art world are sure ways to become successful as a fine arts auctioneer. Attend art exhibitions at art galleries and museums, as well as other professional events for art professionals. And, dress the part.  Auctions are usually semi-formal events and showing up in cut-off jeans and an old t-shirt won’t help your reputation or get you a future job.

LICENSURE

Licensure requirements for auctioneers vary from one state to the next.  Some states don’t require a license at all, but 37 states do, and there may even be special licensing requirements for different types of sales. Aspiring auctioneers should consider joining a professional organization to learn specific requirements for fine arts auctions or check with a local licensing authority. 

04

JOBS OUTLOOK AND SALARY

In 2014, Christie’s (one of the largest auction houses, along with Sotheby’s, in the US and Europe) employed more than 115 people in the US alone.  Looking to surpass that number in the coming years, Christie’s asserts it is a reflection of the growth in the art market overall, as well as an increased interest by young art collectors.  There are also online art houses like Auctionata, who require the talent of art experts with knowledge in programming and web design.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data; salary or employment outlook, on auctioneers. However, according to the NAA, fine arts auctioneer’s salaries vary a great deal as most are paid on commission, taking a percentage (usually 10 – 15 percent) of the proceeds from an auction.  Since most fine arts auctioneers are paid on commission, salary also depends on how much money a collection brings in.  Estimates by the NAA are in the range of $46,000 per year for a part-time auctioneer.  Fine arts auctioneers can make more or less.

Many auctioneers work part time and hold down other jobs, but as auctions are held whenever a collection is assembled, fine arts auctioneers may work weekends, evenings, and even some holidays when necessary, and travel is usually expected if employed by a large auction house. Auctions can also be seasonable, so some moths may be insanely busy, while other months there is no work at all.

How to Become a Fine Arts Auctioneer Resources

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