Being An Intern At Christie’s

The world of an art history graduate can be impossibly vague. MOLLY DORKIN worked at Christie’s in New York for a year, and reveals all the behind-the-scenes drama.

Art Cambridge christie's History of Art MOLLY DORKIN new york painting

“And what exactly do you plan on doing with your life after you graduate?”

It’s a familiar question to any Art History student.

A BA from Harvard followed by an MA from the Courtauld left me very well qualified for very few jobs, so the enquiry was, I suppose, a fair one. Art History is not one of those subjects that leads directly to an obvious career path.

And so, before starting my PhD at Cambridge, I found myself working as a graduate intern in the Old Master Paintings department at Christie’s in New York. It was there I learnt there is a great deal more to the auction world than just art history.

One of my favourite assignments was hand-carrying paintings to VIP clients’ apartments on spec, which is when you allow a potential bidder to keep a painting overnight to see how it fits into his or her collection.

I was once charged with delivering the cover lot of the April 2006 sale – a magnificent Venetian canal scene by Turner, which ultimately sold for nearly $36 million – to the Upper East Side home of a wealthy hedge-funder. His collection was on par with those of several museums: even the entrance hall was framed by a Giacometti and a Brancusi, facing one another across the threshold like elegant coat racks. Rumour had it the client had purchased the Brancusi from his town car on his way to the opera via telephone bid.

Naturally, this is a service only available to the sort of high-level collectors whose personal security systems rival Christie’s own.

Molly with Bellotto

Works of art are safeguarded by a network of forms and security measures, but occasional mishaps do still occur. In 2005, the cover lot of our December sale (a virtuoso Rubens sketch of Meleager and Atalanta) suddenly developed a deep crack when the bowed panel was removed from its frame. A decision was made to rush it to the conservation department at The Metropolitan Museum, but by the time our Sales Administrator had arranged its release paperwork and booked the town car and security guard (mandatory for transport of works valued above $3 million), the small painting was nowhere to be found.

A series of panicked phone calls ensued. Had it been stolen? Not exactly – in fact our chief auctioneer from London, James, had simply lifted the Rubens off the wall, popped it into his satchel, strolled out onto 49th street, and hailed a cab uptown to The Met. Despite the lack of security, the Rubens returned unharmed – eliciting a collective sigh of relief from our Legal department, which would not have been able to claim the insurance had anything happened to it.

James, of course, had a big laugh and found the whole episode highly entertaining. The Rubens (with its crack stabilized) went on to sell for £3.1 million.

Sometimes works of art arrived at Christie’s with extraordinary stories. Among the most memorable was the masterpiece by the mannerist painter Cornelis van Haarlem, confiscated by the Stasi from its East German owners in the 1980s. By the time it was restored to their only descendant, he was destitute and (according to gossip) homeless. That painting sold for just over $8 million.

And there was the stunning portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Elder, sold for nearly $7.7 million by the widow of the philanthropist Arthur Houghton Jr. As part of the deal, we were obliged to hire an art forger who spent two weeks at Christie’s painting, and aging, an exact replica for her to hang on her wall. (We considered sending the forgery to the experts at Sotheby’s, just to see whether they were on top of their game, but refrained in the end.)

I will confess to some skepticism when it came to the more contemporary artworks. For instance, I could never understand how we managed to sell one piece, a room-sized wire cage containing sculpted birdseed children and two dozen real pigeons that slowly devoured them, growing fatter by the day. The winning bidder paid $90,000 for photos of the installation and the right to recreate it whenever he should choose. He wasn’t even allowed to keep the fat pigeons, which had to be returned to their rental agency, the humorously named 33rd and Bird.

Most of our clients were well-mannered and passionate art collectors, with whom I enjoyed working, but a few were more difficult. As in any service industry, we fielded unreasonable requests, demanding phone calls, and, perhaps most challengingly for the young women in the company, male clients who believed that the artworks were not the only things on sale. I was offered lunch, dinner, drinks, flowers, a bottle of Chanel perfume, and $500 opera tickets. One twice-divorced client my father’s age was so persistent in his attentions that a colleague jokingly entered my name into our records system under “transactions” rather than “client contacts”.

We heard stories of pretty young administrators marrying middle-aged millionaires, and it was easy to see how such things happened. Happily, in my case, my bosses’ paternal instincts ultimately outweighed any desire to close a business deal – though I suspect that, at times, it was by a narrow margin.

Incidentally, I declined the dinner invitations, but kept the opera tickets.