Auction Talk: The Auction Catalogue

I thought I’d take a look at the auction house catalogue, what’s inside and what the inside stuff means. Here, I focus slightly less on photographs as I present the case of The Temple Singer and cover a little bit of Contemporary Art. Don’t worry, I’ll get into photos in subsequent episodes.

It costs how much?

For every sale it holds, the auction house will produce a catalogue featuring all the consigned works. The catalogue is produced in-house by the auction’s art department and will inevitably suffer through numerous mock-ups, re-mock-ups and edits before it is released. There may also be a digital version, made available on a site like issuu, for those who, like me, would rather save the money (although I’m convinced it was not for this reason that the digital versions were made available).

Phillips Photographs November 2018 sales
Screenshot Courtesy Issuu

When I was first introduced to the auction house world, the sale catalogue seemed like this singular attainable item, and I was very excited to acquire one. For £25/$25 it was certainly far more attainable than anything featured in the auction. I suppose I saw it much like a souvenir of an excursion; I was really a tourist. Having now witnessed the catalogue production process, at least in part, it is, like anything else, a laborious task. But here, I’m less interested in the pre-production as I am in the post-production; what goes inside.

Like I said, it costs how much?

When consigning a work to a sale, the consignor will agree terms with the department and sign a contract to that effect. The costs laid out in the contract may be split between those covered by the consignor, and those covered by the department. This usually only happens for VICs (Very Important Clients), because it’s a way of enticing said VIC to return. It demonstrates that the department understands the importance of said VIC. Besides, the auction house will likely make more off importanter (definitely a word) works sold through them by means of commissions, so why sweat the small stuff.

What catalogues look like; front and back covers

Costs usually always to the NAICs (Not As Important Clients) will include the cost of photography for the catalogue, artwork insurance (unless they provide their own, in which case it’s waived) and the cost of shipping (unless the auction house is covering this, too). 

Catalogue entries

The catalogue will include all the lots offered for sale with their lot numbers, titles, artist names, dates, estimates, import information, and any subsequent information. The subsequent information usually includes some choice details of exhibitions where the work was exhibited, relevant gallery shows in which it was shown, and whether a piece from the same series or edition belongs in an important museum or private collection.

All this information is provided to cushion the artwork in a certain glory that makes it appealing for prospective buyers. After all, if you’re about to drop a cool £3 mil’ on a grim painting of a peculiarly articulated, apparently human man, you might want to be reassured that your decision is a valid one.

Thus, providing extensive exhibition history, literature references, provenance and including a considerable catalogue essay is the auction house’s fairly unsubtle way of assuring any potential buyer that they haven’t gone off the rails. Because buyers are, understandably, a little uncertain when venturing out onto the wilds of the art auction.

Case study: The Temple Singer

I’ve been reading Peter Watson’s revealing account of the Sotheby’s smuggling scandal, which took place in the antiquities department in the 1980s. While £60,000 for an ancient vase sounds inconsequential in comparison with a £5 million Impressionist painting, both require provenance to be listed in the catalogue.

With the Sotheby’s scandal, the risk of publishing the provenance and literature references for this vase (Watson calls it the ‘Temple Singer’) was deemed too great; once that catalogue had been published it would only have been a matter of time before antiquities experts realised that this vase had been smuggled illegally out of Italy. So it was withdrawn. 

The extensive provenance, literature references and exhibition history serve a purpose. Listing the provenance is important not only because it may demonstrate the aristocratic lineage held by an artwork (and therefore entice a client), but in the case of the antiquities being smuggled out of Italy, it also served to prove where a specific item was at any one time.

When it comes to objects of cultural heritage, countries are understandably protective. If the Temple Singer was last in the collection of a certain Count Andrea Beaumont Bonelli in Naples, Italian law would have prevented any attempt to export the object, so smuggling it out of the country was the only other possible course of action. 

As Watson continues, the Temple Singer had been published; it featured in three scholarly journals, and Watson himself found the reference in less an hour at the British Museum. These scholarly journals served to emphasise the importance of the vase. It also proved that it was genuine (ironically, the vase itself turned out to be fake). But the relevance of literature references cannot be understated; for example, in Christie’s sale of Ancient Art & Antiquities in October 2018 (New York), a spectacular marble torso of Hercules was presented for sale. It had a pre-sale estimate of $2,500,000-3,500,000.

As you can see in the screenshot below, the provenance listed is quite extensive; you’ll note in particular that these Private Collections remain very, very private. Twice it came up at auction, the most recent instance being in 2014 when it was presumably acquired by the then-present owner who consigned it to the 2018 sale. Everything on the website also appears in the catalogue, digital and printed versions both.

Lot 48, A Roman Marble Torso of Hercules, ca. 1st-2nd century A.D.
Property of a Private Collector
Christie’s New York Antiquities 31 October 2018
Screenshot Christie’s online e-catalogue

The Dull Stuff

In every auction catalogue produced, there will be tiny symbols that appear next to the lot number of consignments. These vary in shape and you may see triangles, bullets, spades, double crosses, circles with snowflakes inside and more. And they all have a specific meaning. Generally speaking, the auction house has a legal responsibility to represent everything accurately. Obviously. If you purchased something at auction and then discovered that you had to pay an extra 5% on top of the hammer price for Import VAT, you might be a little disgruntled. Thus, the symbols. 

I found it terribly confusing when I was in London, to understand the differences between Auctioneer’s Margin Scheme and whatever that other one was. I’ve never been mad keen on math or numbers (so studying the history of photography was an excellent decision, there are hardly any important dates to remember) and somehow the percentages got the better of me.

But I can tell you about other symbols, especially the guarantees, which are the fascinating bits. I think I might cover guarantees in a separate episode because they require rather a lot of explanation and justification. Of course, the symbols are identified in the back of the catalogue, otherwise that would be rather misleading. 

Phillips Photographs catalogue, 2016
Information for buyers
Also available to view on their website

Last words

Aside from the verbal interactions between collectors and specialists, the catalogue is the last tangible thing that expresses how important a work of art is. The last Leonardo that sold at Christie’s in 2017 even had its own catalogue, such was its rarity. After all, the Saviour of the World demanded a little more than one catalogue cover and double-page spread…

Ultimately, the auction catalogue and supplementary informations are meant to encourage a potential buyer to buy and to assure a semi-firm buyer that they’re completely right to bid. It’s always about status. Like a slightly insidious serpent from a notorious garden as it slithers towards you, whispering, ‘Don’t you want to own thisssss?’

There’s obviously more to cover, but I fear that I’ve already surpassed the acceptable word limit assigned to digital musings, so will leave you on this: To Be Continued…


Peter Watson, Sotheby’s: The Inside Story, London: Bloomsbury, 1997

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