Gallé vases

Gallé vases like this one were among the valuable objects I was able to handle when I worked at Butterfield & Butterfield auction house

Handling Objects is Valuable Learning Experience

If you’re a student of design, or aspire to go into the field, you might want to do what I did and intern or work at an auction house.

One of the best learning experiences I ever had when studying for my second career as a design historian was working at Butterfield & Butterfield, first as an intern and later as a researcher, from 1995 to 1997.

I got so much more out of handling objects rather than learning about them solely in class or viewing in museums. The experience helped me understand craftsmanship, colors, materials and proportion. I was touching history.

And wow, did I get to handle some incredible objects, including Tiffany and Gallé vases, lamps, Art Deco furniture, ancient pottery and more.

Sometimes the work was a little scary. For example, I remember being asked to carry a Gallé vase from one department to the other, knowing it was worth in the neighborhood of $25,000. It was a little bit like carrying the Holy Grail and praying you don’t trip and fall.

Tiffany lamps

I worked with Tiffany lamps like this one when I was at Butterfield & Butterfield

What was particularly fun for me was the detective work. Often times, objects would come into the auction house whose origin was unknown. So, it was up to me and other staff members to identify the maker of the object, or perhaps the era and location in which it was created. I learned so much from the appraisers who knew the objects and eras and their identifying aspects so well!

My forensic accounting skills also came into play. That’s right – my original background and training was in accounting, and I developed a particular skill in being able to trace where money was hidden and how it was hidden. In fact, I often testified as an expert witness in embezzlement cases – until I realized such testimony can result in nasty threats.

Let’s face it: It’s a lot safer to identify a vase than an embezzler.


Eleanor Schrader is an award winning architectural and interior design historian, professor and consultant who lectures worldwide on the history of architecture, interiors, furniture, and decorative arts. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.