The Art Collector - Dealer Relationship Examined

May 10, 2017

Important Considerations for Find A Trusting, Lasting Partnership

Dealer Relationship

The relationship between art collectors and dealers is unique within the worlds of culture and commerce. In no other creative field--dance, literature, film, music--does a single buyer purchase a work from a single seller in a distinct, personal transaction. It’s an intimate, high stakes deal drastically different from buying a concert ticket or a book. If all goes well, it can lead to mutual education about the market, incredible collections, and even decades-long friendship.

With reputation, finances, and meaningful aesthetic objects at play, what should more collectors consider when working with dealers, both independent and those employed at galleries? We asked a few to find out.

How the Collector / Dealer Relationship Should Evolve Over Time

Like any relationship, the association between a collector and dealer takes time to develop. Additionally, both parties have a dynamic set of requirements. Collectors are always in the process of figuring out what kind of work and artists most appeal to them as their interests change. Dealers are continuously shaping their sensibilities as they visit artists’ studios, scope out international art events, and research the historical and contemporary art landscape. This leads to discoveries they share with their clients. Collectors, says Debra Marcoux, director of Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, should come to trust their dealers as “a source of inspiration.” She further explains that “a dealer and a collector come together through a shared experience of discovery, which can be fun, educational, compelling, and ultimately a process of self-discovery.” Dealers and collectors connect over a shared appreciation of artists who the former represent and the latter express interest in collecting.

Steven Zynszajn and Gregory Singer of Elegant Century Art agree that the relationship should develop “progressively, with an appreciation of each other’s sensibilities and expertise.” The association is built on a mutual consideration for a common passion--art. Collectors express their preferences and dealers offer their expertise about both particular works and the market. Over time, say Zynszajn and Singer, “the dealer should acquire an intuitive sense of the collector’s tastes.” Sometimes, both parties share in a quest to locate a coveted work, bringing them closer after a successful acquisition. Is your dealer still suggesting artists and styles you’ve vetoed many times? Find someone who listens to you and better understands your tastes.

What Makes a Good Collector... and a Good Dealer

Scott Richards of Scott Richards Contemporary Art advises, “a good collector / gallery client is wise to spend less time sourcing on the Internet and more time listening to their dealer.” While collectors should certainly inform themselves about what’s out there, they should also trust and value the dealer’s time and efforts. While the online art market might be a great place to track down a work or two, the Internet can never give you the personal, human recommendations that a dealer can. A dealer invested in your interests and collection can offer strategic, passionate, and thoughtful advice in a way that no platform can.

Going behind dealers’ backs is another no-no. “Collectors should never go directly to the artist to purchase work being shown by a gallery,” says Celine Mo of VICTORI + MO. “The primary goal of galleries is to advance artists' careers. Going directly to an artist can really undermine the gallery’s hard work.”

Richards, who collects art in addition to selling it, advises collectors to look into dealers’ previous experience. Good: Years spent working for another gallery before starting their own business. Good, but not quite as good: Auction house experience that doesn’t actually include selling art, working with artists, or establishing relationships with collectors and curators. Red flag: People who became art dealers because they “love” art or have entered the market after several successful years in another field. You want a dealer, Richards says, that “has an established reputation and knows their market.”

Working with Private Dealers vs. Galleries

The term “art dealer” can refer to someone who sells work at a gallery or someone who consults privately, sometimes selling their own inventory or brokering deals between buyers and sellers. Zynszajn and Singer explain that collectors “should focus on pursuing the desired artwork, which may be represented by either a gallery or private dealer.” No matter who offers the work, the dealer has the same responsibility in “accomplishing due diligence on the client’s behalf with authenticity, provenance, condition, and fair market sales price: the essential prerequisites of any sale.” If you’re not hunting for one particular object, however, refer back to the first and second section. What matters isn’t the dealer’s title, but how their services align with your needs, their ability to understand and support the way you’re trying to build your collection, and their past experience.

Mo describes the distinction in practical terms. “A dealer at an art gallery works with a roster of artists to exhibit at exhibitions and art fairs in an effort to further an artist's career,” she says. “A private dealer, on the other hand, works mainly on the client side. He or she will deal with many different galleries to provide access to works that wouldn't normally be available to the public.” Mo’s gallery and others will sometimes attempt to also do the work of a private dealer by advising clients to look at artists who they don’t represent. She’s happy to help collectors discover other artists, as she thinks it’s unrealistic to expect a great collector to only buy from one gallery. By working this way, she says, “we are building trust--and great collections.”

Don’t Be Shy

Finally, once you’ve begun working with a dealer, speak up! You won’t always agree with him or her, and that’s okay. “The nature of a disagreement can be very enlightening, and the question usually comes down to advice regarding investment value versus the emotional response of the collector based on aesthetics,” say Zynszajn and Singer. As long as a dealer doesn’t continually offer work that doesn’t represent the client’s taste, some back and forth is part of the process.

Mo says that some of her collectors have introduced her to great artists as well, in an inversion of the typical collector / dealer dynamic. “Like any relationship, the relationship between a dealer and collector is built on trust and mutual respect,” she says. “I think it's fantastic that we can show them artists and that it can happen the other way around as well.” Lifelong friendships are an unexpected benefit.

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