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Online Tools for Auction Research – Guide

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This guide covers various online resources for auction research with the goal of helping you to gain an understanding of each resource’s uses and strengths and develop strategies for approaching online auction research.  Please note that there are also many print resources for auction research; please contact a reference librarian in Watson Library for assistance.
 
First, an explanation of the kinds of auction resources that will be covered in this guide:

  • Bibliographic resources: Provide bibliographic citations for auction catalogs. Examples: Watsonline, SCIPIO, WorldCat.
  • Full-text resources: Provide access to digitized copies of auction catalogs or reproduce auction catalog entries in their entirety.
    Examples: Art Sales Catalogues Online, ArtFact Pro.
  • Resources that allow you to search the contents of auction catalogs: Find information about particular objects that have been sold at auction. Examples: ArtNet, Art Sales Index, AskART, ArtFact Pro.

We will also briefly cover other online resources that you can search for information about a particular sale or information about consignors, such as the Getty Provenance Index and full-text newspaper resources.

It is also helpful to know the date coverage of these online resources to know where to look as you begin your research:

  • Watsonline (1747-current; catalogs that are held in Museum libraries)
  • SCIPIO (late 16th century-current; catalogs held by SCIPIO member libraries)
  • Art Sales Catalogues Online (1600-1900)
  • ArtNet (1985-present)
  • Art Sales Index (1970-present)
  • AskART (1986-present)
  • ArtFact Pro (1986-present)

This guide is organized around three common research scenarios:

  • Researching historic auction sales (late 16th century-early 20th century) using bibliographic and full-text resources.
  • Researching objects sold in a recent auction sale (the past 20-30 years) using resources that search the contents of sales.
  • Searching for information about a seller.

The resources in this guide are accessible in a number or ways:

Many of these resources are also available remotely — that is, from home, another institution, anywhere with an internet connection – to museum staff and volunteers.
Watsonline
The Watson Library has art and rare book auction catalogs dating from 1747 to the present, the majority of which are from North American and European auction houses.

The Met libraries’ collection of approximately 120,000 auction catalogs are accessible via Watsonline.  

Auction catalogs collected by Watson Library and the Met libraries are added to Watsonline upon receipt.  You can check to see if a catalog has been received by the library by searching in Watsonline.

Electronic price lists for Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogs published after Jan. 1, 2007 and most catalogs after Jan. 1, 2008 are accessible via Watsonline. 

Example:
Sotheby’s
American paintings, drawings & sculpture 
Date of sale: Mar. 4, 2009
http://library.metmuseum.org/record=b1692060~S1
Click on the Price List link to view a PDF of the price list. This feature is only available within the Museum.

Watson Library has also archived the digital auction catalogs produced by the auction houses Koller Auktionen, Pandolfini Casa d’Aste, and Tajan.  The digital versions of these auction catalogs have separate records in Watsonline, indicated with “[electronic resource]” following the title of the sale. 

Example:
Tajan (Firm) 
Art d’asie [electronic resource] 
Date of sale: Mar. 20, 2002
http://library.metmuseum.org/record=b1703620~S23
Click on the Full text link to access these catalogs within the Museum.

How to search for auction catalogs in Watsonline:

  • The basic search page: Select Auction Catalogs from the drop-down menu on the right hand of the screen to search within the auction catalog collection only.
  • The auction catalog page: This also limits your search to the auction catalog collection only.  A list of auction house call numbers is also available.  Examples for formulating search queries are provided on this page.  The following search fields are available on this page: Date of Sale, Sale Code, Keyword, Author, Title.
  • The advanced search page: Construct more complex queries.  Results can be limited by collection, location (museum library), language, material type (auction catalog), and year.  The date of sale of sale code search fields are not available from this page.

Ways to search:

  • Date of sale (yyyymmdd):  The easiest way to search for auction catalogs.  In this example: 20070910.  (Please note that in Watsonline, only the first and last dates of sale of an auction held over multiple days are indexed.  Example: if the date of sale were Sept. 10-14, 2007, enter either 20070910 or 20070914.  If you enter 20070912, your search will not retrieve this sale.)
  • Sale code:  The alpha- and/or numeric code assigned to the sale by the auction house In this example:  PF7027 KIKUYU (enter all or part of the code)
  • Author: Enter the auction house name.  This way by itself is not recommended, as some houses publish hundreds of catalogs a year.  Auction house names may also vary over time, so it is helpful to truncate your search term.  In this example: Sotheby* (captures various forms of the name)
  • Title: This way alone is not recommended, as auction house titles tend to be very similar.  If there are distinctive terms in the title, enter them as keywords.
  • Keywords:  When sellers’ names appear in the catalogs, they are entered in the records and are searchable as keywords in Watsonline. In this example: Ginzberg.  You can also combine keywords, such as place of sale, auction house, and words from the title in this field.
  • Subject: Subject headings are not routinely added to auction catalogs.

Example searches for an auction catalog citation:

Sotheby’s France SA
Collection Marc Et Denyse Ginzberg : Afrique, l’art des formes
Paris : Sotheby’s, 2007
Date of sale: 20070910
Sale code: PF7027 KIKUYU

From the basic search page:
Date of sale: 20070910, or;
Sale code: PF7027

From the auction catalog page in Watsonline:
Keyword: Ginzberg Sotheby*  (The asterisk captures various forms of the name Sotheby’s.  Some auction house names change over time; similarly, a branch of an auction house in a different country may have a slightly different name.)

I. RESEARCHING HISTORIC AUCTION SALES (1600-early 20th c.)

The example searches for this section are based on the following object in the Museum’s collection:

The Queen of Flowers, ca. 1435-1440
Master of the Playing Cards (German, active ca. 1425-1450)
German; Country of Origin Germany
Engraving printed from two plates; sheet: 5 1/8 x 3 9/16 in. (13 x 9.1 cm)
Janet Lee Kadesky Ruttenburg Fund, in honor of Colta Ives, and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 2006 (2006.429)

Provenance (as listed in a 2006 Christie’s auction catalog):

Friedrich Brugger, Munich (not in Lugt); sold by Aumüller, Munich, 30 January 1871, lot 905 (see pencil inscription verso)

A. Freiherr von Lanna, Prague (Lugt 2773); Gutekunst, Stuttgart, 11 – 22 May 1909, lot 2139 (there described as ‘Reizendes Blatt in vorzüglichem Abdruck, oben im weissen Papier etwas ausgebessert.’), to Artaria, Vienna (5000 Mark)

Rudolf Ritter von Gutmann, Vienna (Lugt 2770); confiscated in 1938; then in the Albertina, Vienna; restituted to the heirs of Rudolf von Gutmann in 2006

This particular work has been sold at auction multiple times.  We will be using bibliographic and full-text resources to research the first two auction sales.

SCIPIO
SCIPIO is an online bibliographic database of over 300,000 auction catalog records of sales covering art objects and rare books from the late 16th century to present, mostly from North American and European houses. Twenty-five art organizations, including the Met, contribute auction catalog records to the database.  SCIPIO has been incorporated into WorldCat, a union catalog that allows you to search across the collections of 69,000 libraries, but remains searchable as its own database.

After clicking on SCIPIO in Watsonline, you will be taken to a page that lists a number of resources.  To connect to SCIPIO, click on the highlighted SCIPIO link or check the box next to SCIPIO and click on Select.

Ways to search SCIPIO from the basic search page:

  • Keyword
  • Auction house
  • Date of sale (MMDDYYYY):  Please note that SCIPIO’s format for date of sale is different from Watsonline’s format.
  • Sale code
  • Title of catalog
  • Year (YYYY)

The advanced search has additional search options:

  • Many other ways to search are listed in the drop down menu, including seller name, title phrase, etc.
  • Limit your results by language.
  • Limit your results to “items in my library

Example search 1: Search for the auction catalog that accompanied the engraving’s sale by the auction house Gutekunst on May 11-22, 1909.

From the basic search screen:

Date of sale: 05111909

Locate the Gutekunst brief record citation in the list of results. Click on the title of the catalog, Kupferstichen, Radierungen und Holzschnitten alter Meister, to see the full record.

The highlighted “Metropolitan Mus of Art” text indicates the museum has a copy of this catalog.  Click on Search Watsonline for this item in our catalog.  Click on Libraries worldwide that own item to see what other libraries worldwide have copies of this catalog.

Example search 2: Search for the auction held by Aumüller on Jan. 30, 1871.  The seller’s name, Friedrich Brugger, is noted in the citation.

Return to the basic search screen:
Date of sale: 01301871
There are no results.

Where should we look next?

WorldCat
As mentioned earlier, SCIPIO is now a part of the larger WorldCat bibliographic database.  Auction catalog records from other libraries that are not SCIPIO contributors will appear only in WorldCat.

It is easy to switch between the two databases.  Simply click on the Databases tab at the top of the screen and select WorldCat from the list.

Since it is not possible to search WorldCat by date of sale, we will have to use another search strategy to locate this catalog.  We can use keywords from the auction catalog citation.

From the basic search screen:
Keyword: Aumuller Brugger

We are able to find the record for this catalog, Catalog vorzüglicher Kupferstiche, Radirungen, Holzschnitte, Handzeichnungen & c. aus dem Nachlasse des Bildhauers Friedr. Brugger und Anderer, welche Montag den 30. Jan. 1871… zu München… versteigert warden.

The Met does not own a copy of this catalog. Click on the Libraries worldwide that own item to see that only the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has a copy of this catalog.

From WorldCat, it is possible for Museum staff and volunteers to initiate an Interlibrary Loan request by clicking on the Interlibrary Loan link.
For this particular search, there is another resource we can use to attempt to locate a copy of the Aumüller catalog.

Art Sales Catalogues Online
Art Sales Catalogues Online is a resource that provides access to bibliographic citations and a growing number of auction catalogs in full-text. (Please see the Now available page to view the progress of Art Sales Catalogues’ digitization efforts.)

This resource incorporates Frits Lugt’s Répertoire des Catalogues de Ventes Publiques (also a part of Lugt’s Répertoire online database).  You may be familiar with this auction catalog finding aid in its four-volume printed format.  The “Lugt number” is commonly noted in auction catalog citations. 

Art Sales Catalogues covers European and American auctions from 1600-1900.  27,978 catalogs have been digitized from microfiche copies and are available full-text via this resource (as of Sept. 2009).  In some cases, more than one copy of the catalog may have been digitized in order to capture unique marginalia.  The resource also includes catalogs that were not in Lugt. 

Searching in Art Sales Catalogues Online:
Please note: Even though this database provides full-text access to selected auction catalogs, you are able to search only the citations for these catalogs, not the text of the actual catalogs.  The database is searchable in English and French.

Ways to search Art Catalogues Online:

  • Lugt number
  • Date (range): YYYY or YYYY-YYYY for year (range); MM/YYYY or MM/YYYY-MM/YYYY for month (range); DD/MM/YYYY or DD/MM/YYYY-DD/MM/YYYY for date (range).  Please note: the slashes must be included.

Selecting one of the following search options prompt a drop-down menu of suggested search terms:

  • Place of sales:  The city the auction was held in. Cities must be entered in their English language form, e.g. Florence for Firenze.
  • Provenance:  Consignors’ or sellers’ names.
  • Auction house: Auction house or auctioneers’ names.
  • Content: Subjects of the material sold in the auction, e.g. drawings
  • Copies: The abbreviation for the institutions holding copies of the auction catalogs, as noted in Lugt’s Répertoire.
  • Provenance index:  The identification number assigned to the catalog in the Getty Provenance Index
  • ESTC: The English Short Title Catalogue number assigned to the catalog

Please note: The drop-down menus may not be entirely comprehensive.  If you do not see the name or word you are searching for, you may still enter it as free text in the search box.

It is possible to search across multiple categories at the same time using the drop-down AND/OR menu to add additional fields to your search.

Example search: Search for the auction held by Aumüller on Jan. 30, 1871.  The seller’s name, Friedrich Brugger, is noted in the catalog.  The object is lot no. 905.

Auction house: Aumüller (selected from the drop-down menu) AND
Provenance: Brugger (entered as free text)

At the bottom of the citation returned by the database is a link to See full-text.  Click on this link for a PDF version of the catalog.  Again, you are unable to search the text of this catalog.

Locate the lot no. of the engraving we were searching for (no. 905) by using the links on the left hand side of the window to browse through the pages.  (This lot is located on page 29.)

Using the options available in the browser window to save a copy of the page, print the page, or zoom in on the text.

Other Auction Resources

SCIPIO contributors’ local library catalogs:

International library catalogs:

Not all libraries are represented in WorldCat, and sometimes if you are looking for a catalog from a more obscure auction house you may have better luck looking in a library that is in the same country.
ArtLibraries.net is a portal to 28 international art libraries. 

To see descriptions of libraries’ individual holdings, click on the name of the library to see whether it has auction catalogs.   A list of the libraries is available here: http://artlibraries.net/allg_infos_en.php#Target%20systems, or by moving the radio button on the main page to “select single catalogues.”

Getty Provenance Index:

A free internet resource that contains close to one million records of indexed transcriptions from auction catalogs and archival inventories.  The sales catalog portion of the database includes information from catalogs from the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands from 1650-1840.  Search the sale descriptions or sale contents of the auction catalogs.

II. HOW TO RESEARCH A RECENT SALE:

How do we research an object that’s been sold within the past twenty to thirty years?  The place to look for this kind of information is in auction indexes.  These resources index the content of sales catalogs, in most cases going back to the mid-1980s.  They are databases where you can get information about the object that was sold, like the artist, object name, price, lot number, etc.

In this class, we focus on the following auction indexes:

The first thing to do in order to know which auction database to use, is to determine, if you can, the object’s medium and country of origin.  This is because some auction databases only index American art, or only index fine arts, or photographs, etc.  This information is included in the description of each database on the library’s website.

The first example we will use is the painting Winter Thaw by the American artist John La Farge.  Since this is an American painting, we can try to find a record of its sale in ArtNet, Art Sales Index, or AskART.

ArtNet (1985-present):

ArtNet’s price database contains information on more than 4 million artworks offered for sale since 1985 from over 500 major auction houses worldwide.  The works range from Old Masters to Contemporary Art and are mostly from all periods and cultures.  ArtNet covers auctions for fine arts and design.  Please note, this resource can only be used by Museum staff (On-site use only).

Searching:

  • You can search ARTNet using the artist’s last name, or the auction house, or both.  But you have to have at least one of these criteria.  Enter La Farge.
  • Click on Find – this will bring up a master list of names so that if there are other artist’s with the same last name, or something similar, you can differentiate between them via their first names, dates, or countries of origin.
  • Enter the auction house name, if available, and click on Find.
  • If you only wish to retrieve sales of an object by the actual artist, rather than objects that are attributed to that artist or “by the same school” as that artist, you should uncheck the box underneath the auction house field.  If you wish to retrieve everything, simply leave it checked.
  • Select a media, if available.   Check off “Paintings”.
  • Enter the title of work, if you have it.  Enter Winter Thaw.
  • If you have the Date of Sale, you can also enter that by a single date or date range.
  • Ultimately, you can conduct this search with just the artist’s name, because that’s often all you have.  Be mindful that the more criteria you enter, the narrower your search becomes.
  • Before launching the search, click on “Check # of Results”. This is a free check of what results the database might have on your object.  If you see there are 0, then you likely put in too much information and might wish to remove some criteria and try again.  Conversely, if there are too many results, you might wish to narrow your search and enter more information.
  • You can choose how to sort your results with the use of the drop-down menu next to “View Results”. Most patrons want to view the most recent sales first, which is this default – “by sale date – descending”, but you can also sort your results with the earliest sales appearing first, or sort by other criteria like the work date and price.
  • Click on “View Results”.

Results:

  • You can print your results by clicking on “Print Now” at the top of the results page.  You can select individual results or click “Select All”, also at the top of the results page.
  • You can see a larger version of the object image and a fuller auction record by clicking on “Full Details” or just on the image itself.
  • You can print the full details page using the ArtNet “Print this page” link on the top right.

The ArtNet Site:

Outside of the Price Database, the ArtNet site has some additional features that are accessible from the top menu.

  • Auctions: A directory of auction house websites worldwide.
  • Galleries: A list of gallery websites.
  • Artists: A way to search for artists represented at galleries worldwide.

Art Sales Index (1970-present):

Art Sales Index has broad international coverage of over 500 auction houses.  It indexes auctions back to 1970 for paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, works on paper, and miniatures and is updated not only with the latest catalogues, but also with a selective collection of catalogues for Christie’s and Sotheby’s dating back to 1920.

  • Art Sales Index is a free Internet resource
  • The example we will use for searching in Art Sales Index is a print called Couples on a bridge over choppy waters with fallen maple leaves by the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai.

Searching:

  • You don’t need to enter an artist’s name if you don’t have one.  For example, leave the Artist’s Name Field blank and just enter the Title: Couples on a bridge.
  • Click on “See Results Details”. (Art Sales Index tells you the number of results generated before showing them to you, so you can decide to continue or refine your search at this point.)

Results:

  • You can sort results in various ways by using the drop-down menu at the top of the results page.
  • You can view the lot details and a larger image by clicking on the title of the work.
  • To print results from any part of Art Sales Index, use the Browser’s Print function, since the database does not provide its own print function.

AskART:

AskART formerly used to only include auctions of American artists, but they have now also started indexing auctions from artists worldwide.  In so far as American artists are concerned, AskArt defines the scope as spanning from pre-Columbus settlers through modern art expressionists, and they index sales of American art from 1986 to the present.  Sales of international artists only go back to 2007, however.

In addition to auction results, AskArt also includes biographic and bibliographic information for the artists in their database. 

Searching:

  • You can only search AskArt by artist last name.  You can enter the name or browse the artist A-Z list.  Enter La Farge.

Results:

  • AskART will load a page for the artist you have searched on – in this case, John La Farge.  On the artist page, results are divided into two sections; Research and MarketPlace. Each section has a series of links or facets of information for the artist.  Please note, not all facets of information are available for all artists.
  • Marketplace:
    • Auction Results: This link will display auction results for the artist that was searched.  You can refine these results by selecting different media (e.g. charcoal and crayon), searching by work title, and/or specifying an auction date or auction house.  You can also sort your results in various ways.
  • Research:
    • Signature Examples: This link displays the artist’s various ways of signing his name.
    • Biography: This page provides you with several biographical entries on the artist, most of which are signed and sourced.  Please note, that some of this content is user-contributed, but then reviewed by AskArt for accuracy.
    • You can also get some bibliography on the artist from the Book and Magazine References links.

ArtFact Pro (1986-present):

ArtFact Pro is the only database that indexes sales for both fine arts and decorative arts objects, including antiques and collectibles. In addition, it provides complete auction catalog entries including full descriptions, research, provenance and condition reports.  It indexes sales from 1986 to the present.

Searching:

  • The way to get into the ArtFact auction database is to click on the link underneath the search box that says, “Advanced Auction Search.”
  • You can select different limits at the top of the advanced search page.  For example, it is set to look only for lots that have images, but you can change that to look for all lots.
  • You can enter your search terms in the text boxes provided.
  • You can also narrow your search further by selecting any of these criteria at the bottom of the search screen: Date Range (Date of Sale), Price Range, Auction House, and Auction Location (country, city).

Sample Search:

You are familiar with the following object from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and wish to find if something similar, by the same company, has gone for sale in the recent past.

Object Information:
Plate, 18th century (1755–60), Manufactured by Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, St. Petersburg, Made in St. Petersburg, Russia, Hard-paste porcelain, (65.47)

How to Search in ArtFact:

  • Enter the phrase Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in the Exact Phrase box.
  • Enter the term Petersburg in the All the Words box.
  • Enter the terms plate dish in the At Least one of the Words box.

ARTFact should thus retrieve auction results with the phrase “Imperial Porcelain Manufactory” and the term Petersburg, and either the term plate or dish, or both, in the record.

Results in ArtFact:

  • Results can be sorted using the drop-down menu at the top of the results page.
  • Click on “View Lot Details” to see a fuller record.
  • Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version of the image.
  • Use the tools on the top right, to print, save or email the record.

AUCTION HOUSE WEB SITES:

If you haven’t been able to find information in any of auction indexes, it pays to look at the websites of the various auction houses as some of them may have full-text catalogs of recent sales available online.  Please keep in mind, however, that different auction sites have varying content and idiosyncratic search interfaces, and there is no guarantee they will keep their content online forever.

In addition, it is not just the major auction houses, like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, that might have this information available online, but some of the lesser known auction houses as well, like the Italian auction house Finarte-Semenzato, that has sales catalogues going back to 2005.

III: SEARCHING FOR THE SELLER

This section of the class is not about how to find biographical information on buyers or sellers.  Rather, it points out another way that you can find information about a sale, using resources other than auction databases.

Sample Search:

The following is an object in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Object Information:

Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of a Man Called General Blyth. (60.71.7)

The Metropolitan does have provenance information for this object, but if it did not, where could one look? 

One can look in various types of resources for this information.  The two resources shown in this class are The London Times and The Historical New York Times, full-text newspapers to which Watson Library subscribes.

1) The (London) Times Digital Archive (1785-1985)

  • Based on the object data we have, we can enter the keywords: Gainsborough and General Blyth
  • Make sure to click the radio button next to “In entire Article Content” so that your words are being searched in the entire article text, not just the citation.
  • View the article Sir J. Robinson’s Pictures. Impossible Reserve Prices.” (1923, July 7). The Times, pg. 12.
  • From this article we find out that Joseph Robinson was the seller and that the portrait was purchased by Knoedler at Christie’s London on July 6th, 1923.

2) New York Times Historical Newspapers (1851-2006)

  • The New York Times is the place to look for information about domestic sales, for instance, to find out how The Metropolitan acquired the Gainsborough portrait.  However, we could not find any information in the Times on who Knoedler Gallery sold this painting to, likely because this would have been a private sale.
  • The complete provenance details provided by the Museum for this object indicate that Knoedler sold the Gainsborough to the Timken family of New York.
  • The Museum ultimately got the painting as a bequest of Lillian S. Timken in 1959, and the New York Times does contain the article announcing this:
    2 Museums to Toss For Millions in Art In Timken Estate.” (1960, May 9). New York Times (1857-Current file), p. 31.

Posted 09/29/2009
Erika Hauser
Deborah Vincelli