Purchasing a Major Work of Art for the Collection – part V

Armed with the “wish list” and approximate budget I described in my previous entries, the team of curators and trustees who were interested in finding a suitable object to acquire in honor of Amy Poster went out into the market. Every field of art has a slightly different market, so here’s a brief run-down of what it looks like for Asian art (I’m mostly talking about antiquities here, although the market for contemporary Asian art is remarkably similar).

First, there are auction houses, mostly holding sales in New York, London, and Hong Kong, although there are some regional houses in Europe and other American cities that also get good things. These are pretty straight-forward selling venues, with prices made public and almost everything trading hands out in the open. One doesn’t need to be in the “in crowd” to buy at an auction, but there are some vaguely secretive elements, such as the reserve (or minimum acceptable price) for any given object and the fact that many buyers choose to bid by phone or through agents, so you don’t always know who’s buying what.

Museums often have trouble buying at auction because lots of people have to sign off on a museum purchase ahead of time and of course when you head into an auction you don’t know what the final price will be. Auction houses publish catalogs listing the objects in an upcoming sale about a month in advance, and then those objects are on display for about a week before the sale. That’s barely enough time for most curators to secure the permission they need before buying something. Savvy curators will often arrange to preview select objects from a sale long before the catalog is available. Really savvy curators will take a conservator along with them to see a potential purchase so he or she can assess its condition and look for tell-tale signs of reconstruction or forgery. Of course, if the auction is in a distant city, then going to see things in person is either costly or impossible. Sometimes, curators will ask someone they trust to check out the object for them, but that’s frankly a little nerve-wracking.

On those somewhat rare occasions when a museum pursues an object through auction, they often send an outside agent (maybe a dealer, maybe just a friend) to do the bidding. There are several reasons why they might want to do this, but the main concern is that if everyone sees a curator bidding on something, they might think “it must be a really good object because a museum wants it; maybe I should bid on it, too” and of course one doesn’t want too much competition. But whoever is doing the bidding on the museum’s behalf, they have been given strict instructions about the absolutely highest amount they can bid. I have lost objects by one bid because of these limits, but of course they’re necessary so the museum stays within its budget.

The other major source for Asian art is the many galleries and private dealers who are located all over the world, with particular concentrations in New York and London. Galleries have regular business hours when you can walk in for a casual browse. Private dealers are open by appointment only and are often located in less obvious places, like apartments. A particularly handy way for a novice to get to know these businesses is the pair of Asian art fairs that take place in New York in March, because the fairs attract dealers from all over the world. But there are plenty of galleries that are not represented at the fairs, so discovering them (and figuring out which ones are trustworthy) is often a matter of word of mouth.

Buying from a dealer or gallery can be much less stressful for curators because there is no set deadline for purchase and because one can negotiate and then set a price before presenting the potential acquisition to the administration for approval. It’s often possible to bring an object from a dealer into the Museum for in-depth examination by the curator and conservators prior to purchasing it, which is another luxury that auction houses cannot offer. Museums are famous for moving at a glacial pace in almost everything they do, and making acquisitions is no exception, but I do try to be considerate by pushing the decision process along: dealers have bills to pay like everyone else.

Whether you visit a gallery or a private dealer, there is a good chance that what you see when you visit is only a fraction of what they have in their inventory. And this is one of the major ways that these businesses differ from auction houses: dealers will often save special objects for their best clients. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a fabulous object in a collector’s home and wondered “where did they find THAT?” only to be told that they got it recently from a well-known dealer who never showed it to anyone else.

The bad news for curators is that most of us can’t afford to be regular or top-dollar customers, so we are often shown things after they’ve been passed by private collectors. The good news for curators is that dealers like to see their objects go to museums. And this is another way that a wish list can help a curator. If you tell a dealer that your museum is looking for a really nice Chinese Buddhist sculpture, then there’s a much better chance that they will contact you as soon as they have one. Sometimes they even contact you before they have it, saying “I think I can get a collector to part with this, if you think the Museum might be interested.” And this is where dealers can be your greatest allies when searching for an acquisition: they have seen more objects than any of us, and they’ve made careful note of where those objects were, how much they sold for, and how willing the current owners might be to sell.

It turns out that we found our Shiva through just such assistance from a dealer, but more on that front later…