Art Collecting: Are you an Art Target?
The staff spots you the moment you step through the gallery door. They can tell by the way you dress and how you act whether or not you're an "art target," and how likely they are to sell you a piece of overpriced art. As strange as this sounds, it happens all the time. Seemingly fashionable art galleries train and employ sales associates to lie in wait, approach, and then sell highly overpriced art to unsuspecting victims who fit particular art-buying profiles. The more your art buying experience resembles what you're about to read, the more likely you are to have overpaid for your art.
How overpriced can art be at these galleries? I asked a former sales consultant who spent years working at one such in Beverly Hills, CA. "Signed and numbered, mechanically reproduced posters can be marked up 100 times or more," he said. "A poster costing only $10 to produce, is sometimes sold to the public for over $1000."
"Unsigned, unnumbered, limited edition etchings or lithographs by major twentieth-century artists can be marked up as many as forty times," he continued. "For example, a large-edition Chagall lithograph that costs a gallery $100 - $200 might sell for as much as $4000 including the frame. Art by other popular or in-fashion artists can be marked up four times or more. This means that a painting consigned to a gallery for $10,000 might sell for over $40,000.
"To be fair," this former employee adds, "high profile galleries have tremendous overheads. Some pay $60,000 or sometimes substantially more per month in rent alone." The bottom line, however, is that in a significant number of cases, 70 to well over 90 percent of what you pay for art at art-target galleries does not go to the art or to the artists, but rather to rent, utilities, furnishings, framing, staff salaries and/or commissions, food and drink for art openings, and other gallery expenses. For example, if you pay $4000 for an unsigned unnumbered Chagall lithograph that the gallery bought for $100 - $200, that's about what it's worth the moment it leaves the gallery.
Through his gallery experiences, he-- and all other seasoned owners and employees-- know exactly who buys this overpriced art. While working at that Beverly Hills gallery, he would keep his eye out for people sporting Rolex watches, alligator shoes, designer handbags, and other overt displays of wealth. "Well-dressed married couples in their forties and fifties are also likely buyers," he adds. "But not newlyweds, and you never talk to people with back packs or rubber shoes, or to artists. They're all wastes of time."
While he worked at the gallery, he would typically strike up conversations with likely art targets and start by "qualifying" them, in other words, finding out whether they can afford the art they were looking at. Below are typical questions that art-target gallery sales staff (euphemistically called associates or consultants) use to "qualify" buyers.
* "So, are you in town for the medical convention?" A medical convention may or may not be happening, but this is a great lead-in to finding out what someone does for a living and getting an idea of how much money they make.
* "Have you ever bought art before?" A "yes" answer is better than a "no," but a "no" still allows the sales associate to continue the conversation by asking what artists they like the most, whether they're familiar with any of the art they're looking at, and so on.
* A "yes" answer to the above question leads to the next question which goes something like "Where do you buy your art?" Knowing where a person buys art is critical to making a sale. According to this former gallery associate, people who buy directly from artists are unlikely to buy at galleries. If, however, they buy at galleries similar to the one where he once worked, the chances of selling them art are much greater.
* Assuming the art-target buys at higher profile galleries or has at least thought about it, the next question goes something like "Who are your favorite artists?" If the person mentions names of artists or types of art that the gallery sells, this is good.
Additional ways of qualifying art targets are beyond the scope of this article, but anyone who qualifies and shows interest in the gallery's art is given immediate attention. A sales associate shadows the art target and either continues the conversation or remains in the art target's vicinity making occasional remarks about whatever art is being looked at. The associate is trained to make the art target feel important, and when combined with the impressive trappings of the gallery's impressive interior, the art target becomes seduced, tenderized, and readied to be sold to.
The sales person pays close attention to the way the art target looks at the art, prepared to spring into action at any moment, and move in for the kill the instant more than a casual amount interest is expressed in a particular piece of art. The associate's goal is to remove that piece of art from the main gallery and suggest that the art-target study it more closely in a place called the "viewing room."
The viewing room is usually a smaller room off of the main gallery floor with a door that can be closed for privacy. It's specially designed for isolating art targets alone with their sales associates, and for showing art so that it looks its absolute finest. At one end of the room is a display area with sophisticated lighting where the art is positioned for viewing. The art target is seated across from and facing the art, usually on a comfortable couch, while the associate adjusts the lighting to perfection, all the while talking about how great the artist is and how fantastic the art looks. Under these circumstances, the art target is most vulnerable and the associate eventually pops the question "Would you prefer to pay for that with a VISA, MasterCard, or American Express?"
Viewing rooms are not good places for art targets to find themselves in unless they already know the value and significance of the works of art that they're thinking about buying, or they know and trust the gallery that's selling the art and have done business with them before. Below are additional tips, not only for avoiding viewing rooms, but also to keep from becoming an art-target in any way, shape or form.
** Art-target galleries like the one where this individual worked are usually found in high traffic, high profile, commercial areas that attract wealthy people. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the Soho district of New York City, Fisherman's Wharf and Union Square in San Francisco, and high-end tourist destinations like Carmel, CA and Honolulu, HI all have these types of galleries. Cruise ship art auctions may also fall into this category.
** The substantial majority of art-target galleries are located at street level and easily accessible to passersby. Their opulent interiors are clearly visible through large picture windows and through glass doors that are often open to the street.
** Art-target galleries typically show art by currently fashionable or popular contemporary artists with high name recognition as well as prints by recognizable "Modern Masters" like Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Matisse, and Miro; and, occasionally, prints by Impressionists like Degas, Monet, and Pissaro; or etchings by Old Masters like Rembrandt.
** Unsigned prints sold at art-target galleries may include mass edition lithographs removed from books or portfolios, posthumous impressions (printings done after the artists are dead); some are even copies of works by famous artists done by other artists. All have very modest value compared to what originals or signed editions sell for. Inexperienced collectors who buy these types of limited edition prints at art-target galleries often have little or no idea of what they're really getting and believe that anything by a "big name" artist has significant value.
** Art-target sales people use pressure tactics to sell art. Many work entirely on commission, so the only way they make money is to sell you art. Anytime you feel any pressure from an associate, no matter how subtle, to carry on a conversation, talk about yourself, and especially to buy art, leave immediately. Questions about your credit limit or your financial situation are also immediate signals to leave. Depending on the sex of the associate and the target, pressure can even include flirting. By way of contrast, in the conventional art world, gallery personnel normally leave you alone and engage with you only when you make clear that you want to be approached.
** Always ask your sales associate whether or not they work on commission. If they waffle on the answer, that might be an indication that they do. As stated above, many art-target sales associates work on commission. In other words, the more art they sell, the more money they make. And the more they sell that art for, the more money they make. So the goal of a commissioned art associate or sales person is to sell you as much art as expensively as possible. Recommendation: Do not patronize galleries whose sales personnel work on commission.
** Art-target galleries tend to have high profile art openings with security guards, spotlights, champagne, hors d'oeuvres, cameras flashing, and people at desks in the fronts of the galleries welcoming you, asking you questions and signing you in. Sales associates run around with clipboards, ready to sell. Likely art targets are waited on hand-and-foot, the entire event being designed to make them feel very, very important... and to end up buying art.
** At art-target openings, gallery personnel typically stop you at the door and request personal information, ask you to sign in, or ask how you heard about the opening. Requests for personal information are always warning signs. Conventional galleries rarely engage in such practices. You are being sized up for a hard sell-- never forget this.
** Art-target galleries typically stay open well into the night when giddy revelers out on the town and with money to spend are likely to wander in after enjoying good food and fine wines at expensive restaurants. Two cardinal rules of intelligent art collecting, by the way, are never to buy art at night and never to buy it under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Being an art target can be loads of fun at the moment you're buying art, but finding out what that art is worth months or years down the road when you decide you want to sell it or have it appraised is anything but fun. Of course, you're entitled to buy whatever art you like, wherever you see it for sale, and pay whatever you want to pay for it. But if you care about the value of what you're buying and how you spend your money, resist any pressure to buy, avoid impulse decisions, take your time, do a little artist and price research in advance outside of the gallery setting, or ask an outside appraiser to do it for you. This is how you avoid becoming an art target.
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