Got provenance? Custodial history? Though they’re born out of art markets rather than academia, the 9,000 auction catalogs we have stowed away in storage could include valuable information for students of art history – a color reproduction of a work, dates of auctions, or the name of an elusive buyer or seller.
I should know – I’ve spent the last few months up to my knees in these lovely volumes, creating records so that you’ll be able to search for them in the library catalog.
Until now, this large collection has not been represented in the library catalog. The only way to access it was to consult an out-of-the-way spreadsheet and request the materials from storage. Once we received a request, finding a single volume could be a Herculean task. An intrepid library staff member would bravely wade into a sea of over two hundred boxes only loosely organized by auction house and year. Unable to find specific volumes easily, our adventurer had to locate several boxes which might contain the right materials and haul them across campus to the Art Library. With each box weighing in at over forty pounds, exploratory ventures required some serious brawn. As we give each auction catalog its own record, though, the process is becoming much more user- (and staff-) friendly!So what exactly does cataloging entail? This is a common question, although it usually results in immediate regret on the part of the inquirer. I’ve tried to discuss this project at potlucks and family dinners alike, and at the mere mention of “adding fields and updating formats” most people make a mad dash for the nachos.
I’ll spare you the technicalities – in short, there are a lot of rules and coding standards – because cataloging has a beautifully tactile and historical dimension. Over the course of the project, I will touch every volume of the collection that I create a record for, most of which were produced by Sotheby’s and Christie’s between the 1940s and 2010. You can see revolutions in printing unfold, as exquisite black-and-white plates are replaced by color plates, and finally full image reproductions embedded with the text on the pages themselves.The language and tone of “the sell” has also shifted over time. In the 1940s, catalogs often featured pictures of the estates from which the works came, a habit that was phased out by the 1970s, along with elegant fonts and wordy titles. Adjectives have been worn out and replaced over the years. Works that were once “notable” or “fine” are now “important,” “very important” or presented sans modifier. In the 1990s, Christie’s apparently thought that a hot pink typeface might help to sell neoclassical decorative arts — a bold move into uncharted territory. The catalogs donated to UNC were no doubt used by prospective buyers, many of whom absentmindedly stuck papers between the pages. Letters, postcards, notices, and notes-to-self slip from between the volumes as I flip through, trying to decide whether I’d characterize the illustrations as “col. ill.” or “ill (some col.).” One of my favorite finds, from between the pages of a 40-year-old catalog, is this yellowed note that reads simply “DON’T FORGET.”