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Appreciating Cultural Value

From small town to big city, multidisciplinary Academy of Art University photography B.F.A. alumna Caitlin Coates is putting her photography and passion for art history to work at Heritage Auctions’ main headquarters in Dallas, Texas.

Coates hails from Oklahoma and ventured to California to study photography at the Academy, where she not only learned and honed her skills but grew a deep passion for art history. “I moved to San Francisco when I was 19. I had never been to California before,” Coates said. “It took me out of my Midwestern bubble and helped me grow as a person and a career woman. I can still remember which [instructors] would tear me apart. It would drive me insane when [they] would tell me my work is ordinary. If you’re shy, it destroys your confidence at first. But it teaches you how to talk and backup what you do. It gave me a backbone.”

Former instructor David Wasserman was one of those instructors to help mold Coates’ artistic eye. “Her ironic wit and abilities came to the fore. She [would] always come up with a visual solution that was ‘oh so Caitlin,’” Wasserman said. 

Immediately following her work at the Academy, Coates was accepted into Sotheby’s Institute for Fine and Decorative Art in London, one of the other big three auction houses. Because of the program’s stringent schedule, she would have a year until she could begin. She submitted an application to Heritage, which was headquartered only three hours from her home and followed-up immediately with a call. They offered her an interview the next day and she moved to Dallas the following week. 

“After San Francisco, moving to Dallas wasn’t so scary to me. I think being in the city of San Francisco and the fast-paced nature of the Academy gave me a standing. I remember taking six classes one semester, doing photography during the day and art history at night,” Coates said. “Having projects constantly prepared me for the real world. We have four big auctions a year and as soon as one is done, we have to start on the next season’s auction.”

caitlin coates

School of Photography B.F.A. alumna Caitlin Coates. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Coates.

Heritage is a fast-paced environment with over 40 different departments. Coates works in the historical department and does styling for photography, as well. She prides herself in working so closely with items of such immense cultural value. “I’ve seen everything [from] political buttons to Civil War artifacts to Apollo 11 to items from the Russian Cosmonaut era. It’s our job to take account of the item’s condition and make sure the buyer receives it in the same or better condition,” said Coates. “Heritage is the number one collectibles company in the world. I think the coursework and studying I did with photography and art history, changed my eye a bit. I think about why an item was made, how it was made, who it was made for. Here, I look at things as artwork; I catch myself looking at things as an artist.”

Coates got into the auction house industry, because she wanted to expand her studies in art history. She cited many skills she learned at the Academy that prepared her for the industry.

“Instructors would tell me ‘I won’t remember this after class today’ or ‘you got to do more than what the camera is doing for you.’ I had one [instructor] telling me that my mind ran like a physicist because I had all these ideas but I didn’t know how to transfer them into my art,” said Coates. “I learned how to stand out. I don’t think I would have been able to call Heritage and demand the interview without it.”

Coates is one of the many photographers and art historians utilizing their passion for art and the study of the craft to make a living. “The other day we sold the first civilian Colt model,” she said. “I have pride in the fact that every day I get to see things that people never get to see in their lifetime.”