Why auction houses like to hire museum people

Which brings us to the main reason that auction houses find museum people so attractive: They know where the bodies are buried. In the course of their work they learn who has what important works of art because that’s how they organize their exhibitions. They spend hundreds of hours tracking down objects–some famous, some obscure–and visiting their owners in hopes of borrowing them. In the course of such visits, they might well come upon other works of art that the collector owns.

Auction houses rely on a steady stream of loot to stay in business, so they badly need this insider information. It’s especially valuable given the surprisingly large number of A-list works of art still in private hands. A collector is far more likely to be persuaded to part with his treasures by an ex-museum director with whom he probably already has a relationship than by a cold-calling “expert” from Sotheby’s or Christie’s.

This trend, although a rainmaking boon for the auction houses, might in the long run wind up making life more difficult for museums. The loan exhibition–the big draw for most art museums–is already hard to bring off, given increasing red tape, high insurance costs and fears of terrorism. And it may become a near-impossible task if collectors start to think that the museum director pleading with them to lend a masterpiece today will be an auctioneer badgering them to sell it tomorrow.

Museums Meet Auction Houses: The wall between art-world realms is going, going . . .” by Eric Gibson, The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2007

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