Working with rare pieces of art is a dream for many people, but for those who work at an auction house, it’s also a reality. If you’re an arts or design major, or just someone who’s interested in learning more about the art world, you might be wondering about the types of career opportunities you can find at an auction house and what you need to do to be considered for those opportunities.
To find more about how auction houses operate and how you can land a job at one, we spoke with Alexa Mendez, a post sale coordinator at Christie’s.
What are the different types of auction house positions?
Like most other fields, the art world involves a variety of different positions including roles like marketing, operations, sales and business development. And because not all of these roles require an art background, it’s entirely possible to find a position you like and that also matches your skill set. Alexa’s advice? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. “It’s about what you can do in the industry that you want to be in,” she says, explaining that her own academic background in finance and international business seems far removed from the world of art. However, by leveraging her business skills she was able to find an opportunity on the finance team at Christie’s and has since advanced to be a more senior role as a post sale coordinator.
What types of skills do you need to work at an auction house?
Even with so many opportunities for different careers, most jobs within an auction house setting require two things: 1) A strong knowledge of the art industry and 2) The ability to work as part of a cross-functional team.
Some of the skills that are crucial for any type of auction house position are:
Knowledge of the art industry
Although you don’t need to be an arts major to work in the art industry, having strong knowledge of the field is a key requirement of working at an auction house. In order to develop this knowledge, you can either take some art electives in college, or you can do your own research on the industry by reading relevant publications and following your favorite artists on social media.
Because of the cross-functional nature of the art world (and of auction houses in particular), being able to communicate in a clear and timely fashion is a crucial part of being successful in this field.
Due to the many steps involved in organizing and hosting an auction (such as sourcing the pieces, planning the event and generating publicity around it), having strong organizational skills is extremely important for anyone working in an auction house setting. This will ensure that auctions and sales are well coordinated and that clients are happy with the way their purchases are handled.
How do you get your foot in the door for a job at an auction house?
One of the biggest misconceptions about auction houses is that you have to have a certain artistic or personal background to work there. In fact, when applying for her job at Christie’s, Alexa was prepared to do pretty much anything to get her foot in the door. “I will scrub the floors if that’s what it takes to start here,” she remembers saying after she reached out to them through a cold call. But she didn’t have to. Instead, she was able to demonstrate her talents in business operations and finance and prove that she could bring a lot of value to the organization. “I started off as a finance assistant and now it’s almost four years and three positions later,” she says, emphasizing that her finance background not only helped her get her foot in the door but also helped her advance within the organization. Her biggest tip: Figure out what you can bring to the table and show the employer what you can do for them.
Working at an auction house is a great opportunity for those who are interested in the business side of the art world. To find out if this type of career is right for you, we suggest doing an internship and getting some first-hand exposure to what it’s like to work at an auction house.