sensory, material, & digital anthropology

Participant Observation: Art in the Auction

But the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation…It is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying; the space where they achieve their splendor is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax.
—Michel Foucault (2008: 9)

Figure 1: Christie's London 2013

Figure 1: Christie’s London 2013

My ‘cover’ as a sophisticated young art-buyer was blown just two minutes after entering Christie’s. I walked up to the front desk to acquire a catalogue; she handed it to me and asked for the twenty pounds. Realizing I had to pay, I quickly turned away. I am quite certain she knew then that I was not buying any artwork that day. Even with my cover blown, my participation observation was ready to begin.

While Heidy Geismar describes the auction sale as a theatrical production of price, my experience was slightly tamer. Geismar also writes that auction houses provide a “public staging ground for the contestation and merging of different conceptions of value, understandings of exchange and complex political relationships” (Geismar 2008: 291). They are places where communities of value are repeatedly reconstructed – with a catalogue, script, a stage and an audience. From my seat at the auction, I saw the phone bidders and the auctioneer waiting for the art to be displayed. These art objects adopt owners and new definitions in the auctions; they are given the chance to be reborn and acquire a different history (Geismar 2001: 28).

The auction began with a greeting and I looked around wondering where I fit in. It was hard for me to believe that just anyone could just stroll into a Christie’s art auction, where thousands of pounds are offered by a flick of a paddle. I had to remind myself of a conversation I had with a student also studying the art market. He assured me that it seemed unusual to us because of our interest and curiosity in the art market, but he asked me, “who really wants to go and listen to bids for a couple of hours?” I do.

Fortunately, it was easy for me to ‘participate;’ I was sitting amongst other buyers, as part of the crowd. In that sense, there were no limits to participation that were not contrived by wealth. Instead, my genuine interest in the art world gave me a sense of belonging. However, through out my observation, I realized I was paying too much attention to the bids and numbers instead of the general atmosphere – especially the public and the bidders. What Jenkins writes resonates here: “The market place has its own forms of language, its vocabulary and figures of speech…. what goes on at the market is to be discovered by observation rather than by listening” (1994: 437). So, I observed and took notes.

At home when I read over the scribbles, I wondered how useful they would really be. There were a few points, though, that I realized I could take further. I came to understand that participant observation writing serves that exact purpose: it helps you pick up on things that could have slid past. I would not have realized how patient the auctioneer really was if it weren’t for all the pauses I wrote down. He enticingly and cautiously asked, “Would you like to bid Johnny?” or when someone backed down, he would always ask, “Are you sure?” It was my written account of these moments that gave me clarity. It was not just the verbal remarks of the auctioneer that showed his patience, but it was his silence as well. Bourdieu writes similarly, “If we cannot rely fully upon oral accounts, this is in part because the knowledge involved is largely ‘non verbal’: much of the behavior or action in questions passes on the hither side of words or concepts” (1977: 2). More than ideas and language, I thought of how my own life experience affected my study.

I kept wondering if the bidders were just on a lunch break; instead of buying a sandwich they decided to buy a Miro. If I had grown up in a family that bought million-dollar paintings, would I be unfazed by this all? My unfamiliarity and discomfort seemed to heighten my awareness of the situation. Each bidder was a character. I wondered why he chose that specific painting, what brought him to the auction that day and where that painting would end up. My inexperience and awe of price, which both were a result of my background, actually strengthened my ability to sit back and observe, and to do so attentively and cautiously.

I was particularly cautious with my photographs. While I noted that cameras were accepted, it would not have been appropriate to use it constantly. At first I didn’t dare take any until I saw an older gentleman in the back use his iPhone for a quick snapshot. Thus, the ability to jot down notes with the occasional photograph was the ideal method. It was neither my intention to get every detail, though. For as Jenkins writes, “We need an account which does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right but… as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality” (1994: 434). I learned that observation alone would guide me through. “The indigenous account introduces distortions through what might be called the ‘desire to explain’. In the case of the market, one’s attention is drawn to examples of trickery, techniques of deceit and the breakdown of negotiations” (Jenkins 1994: 438). My role in the auction was to observe as much as possible. I had to be mindful of the ethical considerations, though.  I was aware that I was sitting inside a room where people openly discussed price and their ability to spend a high quantity of it. When the man behind me was competing for a bid, I feigned indifference, as if I were not alarmed that he was about to spend £70,000… again. By considering the ethical repercussions of my fieldwork, I understood that my research would fit within the rules and norms of the auction culture.

Finally, my participant observation allowed me to comprehend how the actors enacted their own roles within the auction. What I took from the hour observation was mine to keep and analyze later. I remembered the art that was sold that day, as well as the tension between what art objects are and what they later could be, as they are reborn again in the auction.




Banks, M. (2001) Visual Methods In Social Research. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Foucault, M. (2008) This is not a Pipe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 Geismar, H. (2001) ‘What’s in a Price?: An ethnography of Trial Art at Auction’, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 6, no. 25. pp. 25-47

Geismar , H. (2008) ‘Alternative Market Values? Interventions into Auctions in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 20, no. 2. pp.291-327

 Jenkins, T. (1994) ‘Fieldwork and the Perception of Everyday Life’, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 29, no. 2. pp. 433-455.

Krauss, R. (1986) The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Smith, C. (1989) Auctions: The Social Construction of Value. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thornton, S. (2009) Seven Days In The Art World, London: Granta

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This entry was posted on 06/04/2014 by in Alejandra Blohm and tagged , , , , , .