At Christie’s, Jason Carey ’06 combines longtime interests in finance and paintings in a fascinating job.

In his sophomore year, economics major Jason Carey ’06 signed up for an art history topics course —“Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism.” Everything since then has followed from that class.

“On the first day, we looked at Manet’s Olympia,” Carey recalls. “It’s a really important, revolutionary painting, which changed the perception of the artist’s role in the 19th century, paving the way for Modernism.” The class, led by Robert Warde, associate professor of English, also viewed Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway by J.M.W. Turner, a preeminent precursor to the Impressionists. “Seeing those two paintings and really talking about them and their impact on society had a tremendous effect on me,” Carey says.

The class was a true turning point: While he appreciated hearing Warde’s description of the paintings’ cultural impact, Carey also enjoyed just basking in their beauty. “I realized that day,” he recalls, “that in the fast-paced world we live in, I loved nothing more than sitting in a dark room, looking at slides and talking about pictures. It brought me calm.”

Despite his newfound passion, the ever-practical Carey didn’t want to abandon his study of economics. So, in classic liberal arts fashion, he devised a way to combine his interests, adding an art history minor to his economics major. Each semester he’d fill out his economics-heavy schedule with one or two art history courses. “I felt like I was engaging different parts of my brain,” says Carey. “I like numbers. I like deals. I’m interested in finance. But I need to engage the aesthetic part of my brain to feel balanced. Art does that for me.”

Professor emeritus of economics Paul Aslanian remembers Carey from his Economics of Nonprofit Organizations class. “He was a really attentive, interested, and interesting student,” Aslanian says, “a humanities kid in an econ class.” At the beginning of each semester, Aslanian administered a one-page survey to help him get to know his students. “I always threw in a wild-card question: What is something about you I would never guess?’” Carey’s answer summed up his career ambitions: “I’m interested in combining fine arts with economics.”

Aslanian, then on the board of the Schubert Club, and Carey, a classical pianist, discovered a shared passion for music. The following summer Aslanian helped Carey line up an internship with the development department of St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. The experience helped expand Carey’s conception of arts-based careers.

During his junior year Carey studied in London at the University of Westminster, where he again took courses in economics and art history. He also interned at a financial firm, but “I didn’t love it,” he says. The experience only made him more determined to forge a career focused on art.

While studying in London, Carey met his Spanish partner, Felipe Poveda Palacios. The following summer Carey returned to London, where—after some persistence on his part—he landed an unpaid internship in Christie’s prints department. “It was when I witnessed my first auction that I figured out that this is what I want to do, where I want to be,” Carey recalls of that first Christie’s experience. “I was basically just sealing pictures in plastic for eight hours a day, but I liked the company. It felt like the right place for me. It combined the finance element with the art world, and I was determined to return somehow.”

Back in St. Paul for his senior year, Carey redoubled his efforts at reaching his goal, developing a presentation for economics professor Gary Krueger’s econometrics course in which he explained the annualized rate of return for paintings. For this required course Krueger suggested Carey choose a subject that truly interested him, thus this topic. He researched paintings that have been sold repeatedly at public auction, compiling data for various pools of artists and comparing their appreciation to that of commodities and the financial markets.

Through his research, Carey concluded that investment in a selection of “blue-chip” artists with established markets, such as a Picasso or a Monet, could easily compete with and often outperform the S&P 500 over the long term. He presented his research to Krueger’s class, and then to an art history class. “Both audiences were quite interested in what I had to say,” he laughs. “For different reasons.”

After graduating in 2006, Carey and Poveda returned to London, partly because of the UK’s legal recognition of their partnership. There they rented a tiny studio apartment and began looking for work. Soon Carey landed a job as a porter at Christie’s, unloading art from trucks, hanging pictures, and moving furniture. “After earning a Macalester education, that’s what I started out doing,” Carey says. “But I was happy. I realized that is what I needed to do at a company like this. I liked the idea of learning the ropes from a hands-on perspective.”

CareyAt the 250-year-old, hierarchy-bound Christie’s, “learning the ropes” often means working your way up from the bottom. Although some employees have connections that give them a leg up, not so the St. Paul-born Carey. And yet he was hungry to make the auction house his home. “I wanted to understand everything there was to know about the company,” he says. “Starting as a porter was a good way to do that.”

After lugging and lifting for four months, Carey applied for a paid graduate internship in Christie’s most high-profile, competitive department— Impressionist and Modern Art. “It was my period of interest, and the only internship I wanted. Here I was, a porter, interviewing for this graduate position, a job that often goes to connected candidates with master’s degrees or even PhDs,” he recalls. “When I interviewed for the position, I talked about the papers I’d written in college, and about my presentation on repeat sales regressions and the annualized rate of returns for paintings. They were impressed that a mere porter knew and loved pictures and also had this business acumen.”

Carey landed the job, and since then his rise in the company has been nothing short of meteoric. After completing the three-month internship, he moved up to the position of cataloguer, researching and cataloguing artwork in preparation for Christie’s biggest sale, the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale. Soon afterward he was named head of two different auctions specializing in Impressionist and Modern works on paper, oil paintings, and sculpture. More recently, he’s been appointed a director of the company and senior specialist of the high-profile Evening Sale.

In this position Carey oversees production of the sale’s catalogue, traveling around Europe to meet with prominent collectors and institutions, offering them valuations and discussing the market conditions for acquisitions and potential sales. Twice yearly Carey and his colleagues amass a multimillion-dollar Evening auction of artworks— most recently holding a record-breaking £176.9 million sale in February. “I am responsible for advising clients on both the buying and selling sides, and generally managing relationships,” he says. “The expertise comes with experience, but as with most careers, it really comes down to working with people, and the trust and integrity involved.”

There’s no doubt that Carey finds all the travel and high-stakes responsibilities exciting, but he never forgets where it all began—in a quiet, dark room staring at paintings on a screen. “I feel lucky that I’ve found a career that balances my interests so naturally,” he says. “The finances are fascinating and even a little glamorous, but for me it’s really still all about the art.”

ANDY STEINER ’90 is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.

April 29 2014

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