Auction house catalogues are big, bold, heavy, and hyperbolic. They make great doorstops. But are they effective marketing tools?
Longtime auction hands say the catalogues—anachronistic as they are, in many ways—still serve a purpose, enticing sellers and informing prospective buyers, especially newer collectors who may still be riding a learning curve. And even as the catalogues evolve (shrinking in size, for example, as more collectors turn to the web for in-depth essays), they’re likely to be with us for a long time.
“They’re becoming more functional,” says Brett Gorvy, partner at Lévy Gorvy
and former Christie’s chairman. “They’re less addressing what the seller wants, and more about what the buyer needs.”
When Gorvy first joined Christie’s in 1994, he says catalogues were vanilla fare, produced in-house with a standard format, and geared largely toward dealers, an audience with existing expertise. As auction houses began to deal more directly with collectors and individual buyers, Gorvy says that “auction houses became much more instructive,” and the catalogue grew into an educational tool, their pages thick with comparative photos and detailed essays written by scholars and in-house specialists.
As with many innovations in the auction world, competition between Christie’s and Sotheby’s swiftly turned catalogue production into an arms race. They mutated into ever-larger formats, as sellers demanded more and more pages to be given over by the house that wished to win their consignment; any trick one house did was copied by the other. Catalogue frenzy reached peak absurdity, Gorvy recalls, when a consignor stipulated that whatever item was given the most pages, he wanted two pages more.
For buyers, the essays are more than educational. They reassure the buyer that the object for which she or he might be about to pay millions of dollars for is indeed among the most stunning works ever created. Take a description of a
bronze head, La muse endormie
(1913), featured in a 12-page, 19-photograph spread: “The act of creation in all its many manifestations is embodied in the exquisitely refined and deceptively simple forms of this sculpture.” Mazel tov to the lucky buyer who took it home from Christie’s last month for $57.3 million including fees—almost a bargain, for the entire act of creation.
According to a former auction house executive, the hyperbolic language of auction catalogues often works, especially for new collectors of extraordinary wealth looking for trophies.
“They may have never heard of
before, but if there’s a magnificent Jean Arp, and you can say, ‘This is one of the best Jean Arp sculptures to ever come to market,’ the collector can say, ‘Oh wow, this is really important,’” he says.
“Someone’s going to spend $30 million on an object by someone they didn’t even know about a month before the sale, or a week before the sale,” he continues. “If you think about that buyer, the buyer’s looking for validation that the object is important, the artist is important, and they rely on the catalogue as a signaling tool.”
The superlatives and hyperbole of the essays “comes out of the circus tradition and originally from P.T. Barnum—‘the greatest show on earth,’ ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ and so on,” says Marcel Danesi, a professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto who has studied advertising discourse. He contrasts the circus lineage to traditional advertising, which is more subtle and often incorporates humor or irony. Neither of those appear in auction house catalogues (or auction houses in general), where descriptions of the objects hew towards the reverential.
Does anyone actually working within auction houses find it weird?
“Surprisingly, not really,” says a former auction house employee who worked in the proposals department. “A lot of people who work in auction houses have only worked in auction houses, so that kind of grandiose language is pretty common.”
Gorvy, who left Christie’s in late 2016 after 23 years there, says he even has to catch himself when he posts on Instagram. He tries to be judicious with the word “masterpiece,” for example.
Auction houses don’t have that luxury. Of course, there are always the truly great works, Gorvy says, which barely demand any text. But sometimes, he says, “a work of art needs help.”
Can you guess which of these “masterpieces” sold and which ones didn’t? (Answers below.)