Swann in Profile: Laura Polucha

Laura Polucha joined our illustration art department as a cataloguer in the summer of 2019. Here she shares with us what brought her into the auction world, what she can’t get through her work without, and the things she enjoys doing in her spare time.

What sparked your interest in art?

I developed an interest in art at a very young age. My family had a large collection of art books I used to peruse, and I would get in trouble for ripping out the plates of my favorite pieces to hang on my wall. Attentive to my interests, relatives bought me biographies of artists and other art books for children. One of my favorites was about a young girl visiting Giverny: Linnea in Monet’s Garden, by Christina Björk, and illustrated by Lena Anderson. In my teens, I dabbled in artmaking by attending weekend and summer programs in Philadelphia and New York. By college, I realized that I enjoyed studying art and its context more than actually creating it. I majored in art history and eventually continued my studies in graduate school at Columbia.

Further Reading from Laura: Illustrator Profile: William Pène du Bois and Collecting the Works of Women Illustrators.

Do you have a favorite illustration that you’ve handled at Swann?

Ludwig Bemelmans, Sketch for Madeline, illustration of Madeline and Miss Clavel, gouache and ink on paper. Sold December 10, 2019, in Illustration Art for $22,500.

I always get a thrill when one of Ludwig Bemelmans’ illustrations from Madeline comes through the department. As a child, I had all of the books and grew an impressive collection of plush dolls clothed in chic ensembles that correspond with her adventures in the stories. I still have them!

Sentimental (or mourning) hair bracelet with an ambrotype of a bearded gentleman, circa 1860. Sold October 19, 2010, in Fine Photographs & Select Photobooks for $480.

I’ve had the privilege of handling a lot of incredible material, but I feel a particular connection to historical clothing and jewelry. In graduate school, my research focused on identity and self-fashioning, which gave me the opportunity to closely examine rarely exhibited historical garments and accessories in various institutional collections. There is an intimacy to handling textiles that were worn on the body, which elicits a visceral connection to the wearer in addition to a profound appreciation for the intricate handcraftsmanship of the maker. I also have a quirky fascination with Victorian-era sentimental jewelry, which was often made from human hair. I appreciate objects that foster these kinds of somatic connections.

What’s a favorite work resource you use daily that you couldn’t do without?

When I started working with illustration art, in order to build foundational knowledge, I turned to books such as Masters of American Illustration: 41 Illustrators & How They Worked by Fred Taraba and The Illustrator in America: 1860-2000 by Walt Reed. For my daily work, I rely on various archives and internet databases to help me locate and identify published images. I’m constantly searching the archives of publications such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post, and perusing books that have been digitized in institutional collections or on Archive.org. Depending on the artwork, I may also utilize more specialized resources, such as PulpArtists.com.

Related Reading: The Rise of Illustration Art in the Public Eye

As you know, at Swann we love books. Do you have any favorites? Are you a collector?

I’m an avid reader, so it’s difficult to choose just one favorite book. When I first read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, I was so captivated that I never wanted it to end. As I neared the end, I actually limited myself to one chapter per day to make it last. Happily, I now get to relive the story by watching HBO’s fantastic interpretation in the television series, My Brilliant Friend.

I also love everything by Donna Tartt, especially The Secret History. Her novels are often described as “Dickensian,” so it’s no surprise that Charles Dickens is another favorite of mine. Few literary characters are more memorable than Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

Nicky Zann, Beer Bison, mascot/logo for Colorado Beer Company, circa 2000. Sold December 10, 2019 in Illustration Art for $219.

As an art historian, it’s often assumed that I am also an art collector, which I’m not. My husband and I are craft beer enthusiasts and enjoy traveling to small breweries around the country. We are always sure to take a coaster or a sticker, and we have amassed a rather large collection at this point.

Any additional hobbies outside of art?

I’m a distance runner, so a lot of my time and energy goes into training. Since running is a rather solitary sport, I look forward to the camaraderie and convivial atmosphere fostered by the running community on race day. I try to do two marathons a year, each in a different state. Races are an excellent way to explore new cities and connect with local residents.

August and Gerd Sander, Konditor [Pastry Chef], silver print, 1928, printed 1995. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $6,250.

When I’m not running, I enjoy the focus and precision required in baking bread and pastries. My favorite recipes involve puff pastry, but I recently began experimenting with sourdough. Sourdough starter is rather time-consuming—much like a pet, it must be fed twice a day.

If someone’s visiting NYC and they only have one day, what should they do?

This is easy. I always recommend a visit to my favorite destination, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It can be overwhelming and intimidating for first-time visitors, so I like to tailor gallery recommendations and “must see” highlights for each of my guests based on their interests and personalities. Of course, no visit to New York would be complete without a leisurely stroll through Central Park, but Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park are the best destinations for people-watching.

What drew you to auctions and why do you love the world of “stuff”?

Throughout my education I held internships at several museums, where I was energized by working in the physical presence of the objects. Before coming to Swann, I worked for an art gallery, which is where I really cultivated my connoisseurship skills through the close examination and handling of objects.

All of these experiences have been incredibly rewarding, but there is a particular excitement that comes with working in auctions. The pace and constant flow of material is exhilarating, and each day brings new surprises. Our consignors come to us with fascinating objects, some of which have not been studied or been to auction before. When I take illustrations out of their frames, I love encountering the labels, marks, notations, and captions hidden in the margins. (Sometimes I’ll even find another illustration hidden on the back!) Such marks offer insight into the illustrator’s methodology and working process, and for unknown works, often act as crucial clues to where and when an artwork was published. Being a cataloguer in Illustration Art requires a certain amount of detective work in hunting down and identifying published images. I’m always up to the challenge of solving a mystery!

Related Reading: Margins, Notes & Stamps: The Bones of Illustration Art

More on our Illustration Art Department.