Placement Spotlight: Christie's

Through the OOC-DTP’s placement scheme, I spent three months working in the books and manuscripts department at the auction house Christie’s. I contributed to four sales covering a variety of materials: modern first editions and jazz memorabilia from the collection of the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts; music manuscripts ranging from medieval antiphonaries through to an autograph score by Steve Reich; early printed books and incunables, including examples from the Aldine press; and a collection of historic autograph letters, with examples from Mozart and Einstein – notably a letter containing his aphorism that ‘God does not play dice’ – and extensive correspondence from artists and authors. As an early modernist and Italianist, my personal highlight was a letter to Michelangelo written circa 1531 by his apprentice Antonio Mini, who had recently relocated to Lyons. Keen to impress his master, Mini reports optimistically on his attempts to win the patronage of the French royal court, and he boasts of his purchase of a new velvet doublet (‘Just think’!). The letter is also of scholarly interest since it discusses Michelangelo’s lost painting Leda and the Swan, which Mini took with him to jumpstart his solo practice abroad. In addition to research and cataloguing, my other tasks included analysing and evaluating potential sellers’ book collections, and liaising with clients. I also joined some of the training sessions that Christie’s provides – most memorably auctioneer training, where I learned the subtleties of gavel technique – and I attended several of the live auctions that took place while I was there.

Arriving straight from my doctoral research, I found the sheer variety and rapid turnover of the work stimulating, albeit disconcerting at first. The frequent reconfiguration of the gallery spaces at Christie’s also played into this. In consecutive weeks, a pair of unpublished Canaletto views might be followed by an unrivalled collection of Rembrandt’s graphic oeuvre, and so on. In the week of Frieze art fair, in October, a selection of contemporary works went on display, including several Richter canvasses, a wall hanging by El Anatsui, two Damien Hirst Mandalas, a painting by Basquiat, and a Paula Rego diptych, her Dancing Ostriches from the Fantasia series. The same week, the auction house’s exterior and entrance area were overhauled by the artist Lakwena Maciver, turning the building itself into a habitable artwork. 

Now, after the winter break, I have been getting back to work on my thesis. It has taken time to adjust to the slower-burn pace of academic research, but the time away is making me appreciate the deeper approach. The experience of a more conventional, office-based job has also helped me to work more robustly on my research. The three-month experience was positive because the work itself was consistently interesting and the environment exciting. My colleagues were also all friendly, engaged, and supportive. I feel I will benefit from the break that it has given me from academic work, and from the leg-up I expect it will provide for a future career if I decide to leave academia. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions about the placement.