Art Auction Houses and the Sales Catalog

One of the biggest advantages to purchasing artwork at auction is that art auction houses publish catalogs well in advance of each sale that describe each piece. Often each listing will have images, estimated sale amounts and notes on the piece’s condition. For many collectors the sales catalog becomes a collection piece in and of itself, particularly for notable sales at houses that still publish printed books.

However, the catalog is equally important to the auction house as well. First of all, it provides a detailed record of what was listed at every auction. Second of all, it allows for easy organization and access for processes like sales order and price recording.

Creating the Catalog

Art auction houses may have a dedicated team of employees that specialize in producing catalogs for each auction category. Often these individuals have advanced degrees in their respective field, and they have experience writing about the history and market of art. By having art professionals who specialize in particular market areas, the auction houses can help to ensure that the objects they have listed are appropriately categorized and valued.

The catalog will typically list items in the order that they will appear in the sale. This means that the layout of the sale needs to be determined before the catalog can be published.

Catalogs as Research Resources

A huge benefit of auction catalogs for both collectors and art researchers is that they allow for the tracking of previous sales history. This is an essential tool for determining an item’s accurate provenance. Most art auction sales are typically based on a certain style or time period- such as an Old Master’s sale or an American Art sale. Therefore, it is easy to search catalogs by keyword or subject in the same way one would find any other references.

The Library of Congress has started to record catalogs of prominent art auctions throughout history. This serves as a database of resources for researches of provenance and for those looking for relative market values throughout history. Similarly, most major art museums and university libraries contain significant holdings related to art auction houses’ catalog history.