Please Touch, Handle, and Examine

Graduate Training Options at Christie's and Sotheby's

by Phillip Eliasoph

The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic—which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.—Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 1790

Mark Twain’s quip “I never let school interfere with my education” is entirely validated for a tiny segment of American graduate students exploring the inner workings of the art world and art market. This intersection of scholarship, connoisseurship and the art market is presently offered in a range of degree programs, certificate programs and special events presented by the international auction firms Christie’s and Sotheby’s at their New York headquarters and education centers. This summary overview of these market-focused graduate programs examines their role as an undervalued asset complementing the better-known academic art history degree options. By defining the positive aspects of the auction house-based programs, this report indicates current deficiencies in the more traditional academic establishment in terms of career preparation. Instead of the routine of scholarly driven graduate seminars and slide lectures, the auction house programs link textbook knowledge with invaluable hands-on and on-site training. The degree and certificate requirements for Christie’s and Sotheby’s offer students an unparalleled level of connoisseurial confidence in launching their careers.

Here are some examples of activities organized by Christie’s Master’s degree program. A senior curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives an interactive talk on Lessons of Connoisseurship, using Robert Lehman’s old master collection.

Sotheby’s Institute Director J. Thomas Savage explains the features of a mid-18th-century paneled yellow pine clothes-press from the Eastern Shore of Virginia to AAC students (from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter M. Jeffords, offered for sale at Sotheby’s on October 28, 2004).A master of bronze casting presents a lecture/demonstration at the Modern Art Foundry in Astoria, Queens. Technical issues about the treatment and restoration of paintings, drawings and sculpture are actively explained by Lucie Kingsolving, Chief Conservator at the National Academy of Art. A visit with the director of the Lower East Side Printshop allows Duscia Kirjacovic to walk the class through a range of topics, defining and demonstrating differences among etchings, serigraphs, lithographs, and the correct way of identifying multiples. Students examine sample artworks with almost imperceptible variations. Slide lecture study cannot possibly replace this level of interaction. The American Arts Course under the auspices of Sotheby’s is equally free-wheeling and flexible with its on-site visits. Antiques Roadshowexperts Leslie and Leigh Keno share their passion for collecting Americana, crawling around the floor and peeking under drawers at Leigh’s East 69th Street emporium. Sotheby’s naturally curious students don’t mind getting sawdust on their hands and are encouraged to “touch, handle, and fondle” Chippendale clawed chair legs and Duncan Phyfe mirrors. A bus tour cruises through the antiques corridor of New Haven, Providence, Gloucester, Essex, Ipswich, Salem and Boston in the fall. Spring term often includes a sling-shot swing across South Atlantic study collections at Charleston, Savannah, Williamsburg, Richmond and Charlottesville.

One might mistakenly dismiss the overall curriculum and these spiced-up regional study tours as glorified art vacations. However, a thorough curriculum audit quickly dispels the suspicion of dilettantism. Students are pushed to levels of physical exhaustion, and rigorous research and archival skills are required. Quietly, many stellar curators and major scholars with endowed chairs in prestigious graduate art history departments appear on Christie’s and Sotheby’s faculty rosters. The addition of these internationally recognized authorities strengthens the programs.

Students are challenged to think on their feet for oral presentations and write meticulously documented catalogue reports demonstrating bibliographic competencies. The intensive nature of the Christie’s and Sotheby’s graduate programs is validated by the career achievements of participants. National and regional museums as well as eminently respected private galleries have alumni of Christie’s and Sotheby’s actively contributing to their professional staffs. Curators, education directors and site managers present in-depth collection studies at historic houses and museums. No one shies away from bottom-line questions of how much? or what’s driving the current market value? These questions are anathema to scholarly art history graduate school programs, despite the ongoing relationship of patrons and artists as a cornerstone issue in Western art history, most famously with popes and princes from Julius II to Jean, Duke of Berry, who acquired grand collections as reflections of piety or avaricious megalomania.

Sotheby’s American furniture specialists Leslie Keno and Andres Holter discuss a William and Mary walnut high chest of drawers, 1720–30 (collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter M. Jeffords).What happened to the stultifying “art in the dark” slide exams driven by countless hours of studying postage stamp-size illustrations in encyclopedic art history textbooks? These fortunate students are encountering original objects and artifacts while learning the tactile aspects of fine arts connoisseurship. Those of us from previous generations of art history and museology training might envy field work courses taught by leading experts in the art market and behind-the-scenes tours of museums, galleries and auction houses. With an impressive range of study opportunities open to the budding graduate student in art history, museum and curatorial studies, these valuable training resources—much to the surprise of the arts community at large and generally disregarded by many credentialed authorities—are growing. The special features of graduate-level degrees and certificate programs offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s merit closer attention. Holding in abeyance the official imprimatur of the academic establishment, they quietly go about their activities, transforming the very essence of hands-on connoisseurship training.

Connoisseurship is often the subject of hostile derision. Phrases such as “artistic quality,” which force young scholars to impose a hierarchy of excellent, average, mediocre or simply worthless, have become code words denoting aristocratic taste. Whither Connoisseurship? was asked at an atypical session at the College Art Association’s 2003 conference. Concerned traditionalists bemoaned that Bernard Berenson and Walter Friedlander were being dismissed as archaic while postmodernists T.J. Clark and Foucault were given enhanced currency. Even among the academic stars accepted into the top ten prestigious doctoral programs, much student knowledge is exceptionally theory driven. Few of the future scholars or classroom professors have ever held in their hand an engraved Paul Revere silver tankard, examined an unframed Winslow Homer watercolor under a magnifying lens, or manipulated an early Edward Hopper canvas under a black-light to search for brushwork revisions.

Anchored in the foundations of academic research and scholarship as practiced at British and German universities in the late nineteenth century, the better-known traditional graduate programs offer the Master’s and doctoral degrees in art history at over 100 public and private institutions of higher learning throughout the United States, according to published data from the College Art Association of America, the big tent organization which sets official standards for the profession. The CAA was founded in 1911 and has a current membership of more than 13,000 art historians, scholars, curators, researchers and a strong contingent of visual artists. It “promotes excellence in scholarship and teaching in the history and criticism of the visual arts” while serving as a clearinghouse for information and professional exchanges.

Despite its extraordinary efforts in fostering the highest ethical and scholarly standards, the CAA has rarely linked its functions to the commercially driven sector of the art market. It is difficult to assess the scope of the international art market through private dealers or published auction prices, but there are a few clues. According to published reports, Christie’s total sales for the first six months of 2004 rose 19% to $1.25 billion. Sotheby’s total auction sales for the first three quarters last year amounted to $1.55 billion. Even the newer Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg reported sales over half a billion dollars in 2004. Add the total gross sales of commercial art galleries and private art dealers, and it is estimated by art world insiders that the global art market is estimated to be over $30 billion annually. This translates into considerable opportunity for well-positioned art history graduates to balance personal fulfillment and job placement satisfaction. Only a fractional number of graduate students will become curators at the Frick Collection or choose paintings for the Whitney’s next Biennial exhibit, so a business career in the art market is a hard-earned reality check. For those brave souls choosing the academic route, the doctorate is usually earned ten-to-twelve years after completion of the B.A., and any Search Committee Chair will testify that, for most entry-level assistant professorships with the remote hope of earning tenure, there is a deluge of qualified applicants.

Students graduating in droves with M.B.A. degrees in accounting, economics or finance benefit from professional organizations that encourage students to work for Big Four accounting firms, and create on-site internships at major financial institutions or brokerage houses. There is an obvious lacuna in the industry of art history in higher education in America today. At best, there is often intellectual disdain for the free-market aspect of the marketplace. By advising their students to resist the inherently deadly sins of predatory capitalism, academics encourage them to remain untainted and true to art’s transcendent qualities. This avuncular career advice often leads to unemployment. For example, a quick perusal of the sessions and panels offered at the annual CAA conference reflects this overt disinterest in preparatory training for entrance into the art market field. Attended by approximately 3,000 art historians, graduate students and artists, this annual event spotlights the stars of academic scholarship and upcoming aspirants seeking tenured university teaching positions.

While the 2004 CAA conference in Seattle had one session titled Art and Money, the remaining sessions emphasized topics such as Other Objects, Other Artists: Alternative Accounts of Twentieth-Century Art, and Fashioning the Public Self: Modernity, Transformative Fictions, and the Social Construction of Artistic Identity. The February 2005 conference in Atlanta featured one session on the Changing Role of the Curator but continues to be thematically dominated by social sciences topics such as Colonialization of Everydayness: Cold War Histories, and Tomboys and Girly Girls: Picturing Gender, Sexuality, and Female Adolescence.

Through its scholarly publications, annual conference and career development office, the CAA consciously minimizes connections between the rarefied academic textbook campus and the rough and tumble of the business world. The integration of learning about aspects of artistic quality, quickly exchanged into the currency of financial value as the most reliable assessment of rarity, is arguably the most reliable benchmark.

Veronique Chagnon-Burke, Director of Studies, Christie’s Education, New York, with studentsThis is, after all, where the demands of the marketplace merge with scholarly attribution, requiring precise analyses of unsigned seventeenth-century Dutch old masters, mysteriously discovered American folk art, or Hudson River School oil sketches of uncertain provenance. Considering the socially hierarchical and unapologetically elitist origins of the field, we surely welcome this trend in American higher education which has dramatically democratized art history as a socially relevant and equity-based discipline today. But most graduating art history students can’t seem to find outlets for translating their sociologically skewed academic jargon into a fulfilling and financially rewarding career. Students upon graduation often lack the requisite tools to work in a commercially driven art market. This is all alarmingly unlike the tolerant, broadly defined humanities field of the history of art once envisioned by Erwin Panofsky.

Presiding over Christie’s education center, located in a suite of classrooms and library on East 59th Street, is Dr. Veronique Chagnon-Burke. “We are currently accepting only twenty-five Master’s degree students and another ten for our Advanced Certificate,” she explains, “and every year we are becoming more selective from a large pool of hopeful applicants.” Christie’s has offered graduate programs in Connoisseurship and the Art Market since 1993, branching off from their London-based training program, which began in 1978. Typical of her hands-on style, Chagnon-Burke bridges her role as Director of Studies with her high-powered seminar History of the Art Market. The syllabus explains that the “goal of the seminar is to familiarize students with institutions that have historically played an essential role in shaping the art market: private dealers, galleries, collectors, auction houses, museums, official exhibitions.” This offers insights into the “historical framework that allowed modern art to develop but also to understand that what is happening now is still part of the same continuum.”

“I was immediately drawn to Christie’s program with its emphasis on the business side of the art world,” comments Libby Bugbee from Missoula, Montana. After graduating in 2002 with a French literature degree from Washington state’s Whitman College, she taught English at a small school in the Alsace region of France. “I became very involved in contemporary art visiting the art fair in nearby Basel. A family friend was auctioning an artwork through Christie’s, and they wrote me an email suggesting that I look into Christie’s graduate program.”

Christie’s M.A. program involves forty-two credits extending over sixteen months. Required for all students are seminars and lecture courses which include Connoisseurship and Field Study. Art in Context presents panel discussions building awareness of a wide range of art professions. Historiography and Methods outlines a comprehensive evolution of the art history discipline. A required internship places students in a Manhattan museum, private collection, non-profit institution, commercial gallery, corporate collection or one of Christie’s specialized departments—American Pictures, Old Master Paintings, Impressionist and Nineteenth-Century Pictures—for a monitored experience in the workplace. A capstone thesis demonstrates mastery of primary sources and the formulation of an original critical or historical argument. One student analyzed the fluctuating market for Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints; another examined Daumier’s Third Class Carriage in terms of the market use of the term masterpiece; yet another thesis probed the “Problems and Precedent Created by the Transfer of Minimal and Conceptual Art.” The Master’s degree is recognized by the New York State Board of Regents. Students may also opt for a twelve-month, thirty-credit Advanced Certificate, which covers much of the same ground but has no extended thesis project.

Additionally, an ongoing continuing education lecture series, which often runs in conjunction with a major Christie’s sale, takes place at 20 Rockefeller Plaza. These special events enable participants to balance a scholarly approach to items on the auction block with an exclusive behind-the-scenes look with Christie’s departmental experts. “We are very aware of the highly competitive nature of the art market,” mentions Chagnon-Burke, “but in pursuit of fabulous collections and astonishingly high hammer prices for original artworks, we are teaching students that there is a prerequisite necessity to ‘give something back’ to our society.”

Deeply committed to his vision of a perfectly integrated learning environment is Sotheby’s Institute of Art Director and Senior Vice President J. Thomas Savage. Envisioning the perfect blend of experiential and classroom work for this graduate-level certificate program, Savage brings a lively panache to Sotheby’s. With his background as former Curator and Director of the Museum of the Historic Charleston Foundation and a widely admired expert on historic estates on both sides of the Atlantic, Savage is a well-equipped schoolmaster for designing an American arts and antiques program: “By the end of the nine-month program our students have collected the most powerful ‘network’ imaginable: a rolodex with about 150 business cards of the leading dealers and experts in American arts.”

Daryl Haessig, a 2004 graduate of the program, has recently been appointed as Director of the American Arts Course, coordinating student dossiers and keeping the daily schedule on track. Her career odyssey began as an art history major at Smith College, followed by a Master’s at the University of Wisconsin demonstrating her interest in the reception of modernism in New York. “I came to Sotheby’s after writing my M.A. thesis on the subject of how the 1917 Armory Show was depicted in popular newspaper cartoons. In my experience here at Sotheby’s I have gained such practical and useful knowledge of American art from our object-oriented approach,” she explained.

The American Arts Course, which began twenty years ago, is currently housed on the top, fifth floor of Sotheby’s sleek East Side headquarters at 1334 York Avenue. The lay public is also invited to attend a diverse series of special events and lectures, found on Sotheby’s public programs schedule. Since its inception in London in 1969, Sotheby’s Institute of Art has endowed its graduates with the “discernment and skills necessary to attain the highest levels of professionalism in the art world.” The Ph.D. is conferred in affiliation with the University of Manchester. The Institute is centrally located on Oxford Street within a few steps of London’s museums and galleries, and a steady flow of art world practitioners are proud alumni now in the United Kingdom and United States. Unquestionably, the primary emphasis on “style studies” and “object connoisseurship” distinguishes Sotheby’s certificate program. Knowledge of historical and regional developments is required, helping students identify hallmarks of William and Mary, Queen Anne or Federal period works. Technical insights from Craftsmanship of Joiners, Cabinetmakers, Carvers and Upholsterers, Wood Identification, or Looking at Silver—What the Books Can’t Tell You reflect the expertise from Sotheby’s in-house experts and outside scholars.

“Admission is selective,” comments Haessig, “we can really only accommodate twenty-five students in the current size of our program.” With undergraduate majors in art history, economics and pre-architecture at Case Western, Edward Payabyab admits to “trying to forge together my excitement about the financial side of the art market.” His senior project in college was a study on art market trends based on statistics from the highest hammer prices. “Right now I am planning to work at an auction house,” says the 22-year-old from the Bay Area.

Sotheby’s has also embraced mid-career professionals and life-long learners. “I have been collecting American folk art, Staffordshire pottery and antique quilts for over twenty-five years,” says Melissa Uram. “I was a practicing psychotherapist and would always encourage my patients to go out and take risks—so here I am!” She plans to “go out in the field after graduation either as a consultant or perhaps work for a historic house museum.” “I worked near Wall Street and needed to reevaluate my life after September 11th; art was something I always loved,” admits Sarah Curtis Cashin. A 1992 magna cum laude graduate of Wellesley College, Sarah was a director in Merrill Lynch’s Equity Trading division. “Even during my time working in the financial world, I enrolled in classes at the Metropolitan Museum and the Alliance Française. After completing the American Arts Course I will feel prepared to marry my business sense with the art world.”

Looking at these testimonials, I see much promise in the next generation of art world professionals gaining experience at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, these fortunate students are returning to the seminal roots. Magnifying their powers of observation, they are learning scientific connoisseurship as an irreplaceable résumé asset and practical tool. In the end, there will always be an inexhaustible set of unknown artworks passing between buyers and sellers who will demand to know: “what is it?” “who created it and when?” and “how did they do that?”

As a springboard for advancement in the auction and gallery business, it’s difficult to argue with Sotheby’s alumnus and current Senior Administrator, Photographs Department, at Sotheby’s, Foster Witt, who commented: “This program was the best unobstructed view into the heart of the art world, providing personal contact with people building successful careers doing what they love.”

For more information contact:
• Christie’s Education, (212) 355-1501;

• Sotheby’s Institute of Art, (212) 894-1111;

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2005, Volume 22, Number 1