Are you an Art Target?

How Predatory Commercial

Galleries Sell Art, Part III

I've been writing about predatory art galleries for years, and about how the most unscrupulous among them sell art to naïve and unsuspecting buyers. I've previously detailed how they operate in the articles Are You an Art Target? and Are You an Art Target? Part II. These types of galleries are sometimes found in high-traffic tourist destinations, upscale malls and shopping districts, but can be located pretty much anywhere. 

They're usually situated areas with high foot traffic, have large show windows, are spacious and brightly lit, have well-appointed interiors, are always welcoming, and often stay open into the night.  They tend to sell art by artists whose work has broad public appeal, deal in names many people recognize, or both. In other words, their art is easy for almost anyone to like.  The more predatory among them are particularly fond of unsuspecting tourists and people who don't know much about art but who like it just the same. And that's are where this tale begins....

Unlike past articles that only touched on the questionable tactics that some galleries use to sell art, this is the unexpurgated version, all thanks to an interview I've dreamed about getting for years.  Someone who actually worked at one of these galleries agreed to talk frankly about the types of practices they uses to sell art. And talk they did; my ears were scorched by the time our conversation was over.

In case you think these types of galleries are here to help you learn about art, think again.  They exist for one purpose only-- to make sure you walk out the door with less cash than you came in with and a piece of their art under your arm-- and they'll do pretty much whatever is necessary to accomplish that.  The worst offenders have little interest in educating you about art (the less you know, the better) or cultivating you as a discriminating collector, and they could care less about the fate of whatever it is that they sell you. They want your money. That's it.  So how do they get into your wallet?

A good predatory gallery sales person can tell within minutes approximately how much you're worth and whether they stand a reasonable chance of selling you anything.  To begin with, they check out how you carry yourself, how you dress, and what your accessories look like-- handbags, jewelry, watches, shoes and so on. In case you think you're being clever by dressing down, they also check out how your kids or others with you are dressed.  Parents won't necessarily wear money, the interviewee tells me, but their kids will, and so might whoever else they're with.  People in their 40s-50s are prime candidates as are those who talk with each other about the art they're looking at, whether they know anything about it or not.  

Skilled predatory salespeople can also tell if you don't have much money, or in other words, are not worth spending even a minute with.  They avoid backpacks and similar carryalls like the plague.  Artists are uniformly ignored as well; either they have no money or they're trying to hype their art, or both. Salespeople may even go so far as to categorize visitors by accents, nationalities, or countries of origin in terms of whether they are more or less likely to buy.   

They'll watch how you look at the art and determine your type or level of interest in it.  People wearing sunglasses are unlikely to be buyers as are those who look around the gallery more than they look at the art. People who try to figure out how the art is painted or constructed are also ruled out because they're likely to be artists. People who look at the art with interest or admiration, on the other hand, and who are not afraid to approach it, look closer, or talk about it are definite possibilities.

Those who get "qualified" from a distance (identified as potential buyers) are soon approached... and interrogated.  An experienced sales person's goal is to find out what you do for a living and then translate that profession into how much discretionary cash they likely have to spend.  If you're a tourist, you get asked where you're from.  Once they know that, it's on to what you're doing in town, what you're up to.  They ask where you're staying in order to find out how expensive your hotel is.  They ask if you're taking specific types of tours, what restaurants you've eaten at, or are going to events that typically cater to people with money. 

They ask if you're in town for a convention; that's an easy way to find out what you do for a living.  If you are in town for a convention, they ask how large it is (this tells them how many other potential marks might be walking around).  They ask if you're an artist and promptly end the conversation if you say yes.  If you give your address for mailings, don't be surprised if they use Google Street View to figure out how much money you have by scoping out your house and checking to see what kinds of cars are parked in your driveway or along your street.

Assuming you pass the intake interview and stay "qualified" as a possible buyer, they begin the process of presenting you with art.  Many sales personnel have been instructed on how to use body language while speaking with you, to stay relaxed, to keep their arms at their sides rather than crossed, not to pick anything up and fiddle with it, to have nothing between you and them, to slow down, speak softly, appear gentle and not eager, and to keep smiling.  They get your name and use it often.  They want you to think you're special and do whatever is necessary to make you feel that way.

They stand beside you shoulder to shoulder rather than facing you, in a passive, non-confrontational, open, non-threatening stance.  They act casual and friendly even though they're on a singular mission to sell you art and are aggressively searching for any clues as to how to make that happen.  They know that people will buy from enthusiastic sellers who smile a lot, so expect plenty of smiles from beginning to end.  The focus is totally on you, the most important person in the world.

As soon as you gravitate towards a particular work of art, no matter what it is, the sales person will do whatever is necessary to get it off the wall and get you and it into a "viewing room" (selling chamber). Viewing rooms are comfortable private or semi-private spaces off of the main gallery where you can be alone with the art (and the seller).  An experienced seller doesn't even ask your permission; they simply take the art off the wall or pedestals and say they want to show it to you in a proper setting where you can really appreciate it.  Why do they do this?  In order maximize the chances you'll buy, you have to be in a viewing room, relaxed, comfortable, and sitting down, not standing up.  Getting you seated is a critical part of the process.  The sales person will stand back and either ask or suggest that you sit down, or tell you that being seated is the best way to view the art.

Once you're sitting, the next step is to get the door closed, so that it's you and them... alone. They might tell you they want to eliminated any outside distractions or better yet, adjust the lighting to show the art at its best. Sometimes the dimmer switch is actually behind the door, which means they have to close it in order to adjust the lights.  Now that you're officially trapped, they begin to vary the levels of light. They talk about how the appearance of the art changes as the light varies, giving you the idea that this effect is unique to this work of art. It's not. The "light change effect" is true for ALL art, but customers don't know that, and as a result, varying light levels has become one of the more effective closing tactics of predatory galleries.  

A skilled sales person will romanticize the art, talk about how great it looks, and how it will enrich and beautify any interior.  They ask you where you want to hang it, to describe the location.  They ask what the décor is like. They might show you some frames that they say will enhance the effect.  Their goal is getting you to imagine the art in your home, imagine you already own it, and of course, imagine the art changing as the light changes, from morning to afternoon to evening, and to imagine yourself enjoying every last minute of it.

They gradually ratchet the pressure, telling you how you'll grow to love the art, that this gallery experience is just the beginning.  They may talk about how people come into the gallery asking about art they saw months or years ago but never bought, how they still miss it and haven't forgotten it, and how sad they were when they found out it had been sold (whether that's true or not).  They try to get any objections you might have out into the open so they can "help" you overcome them.  

They begin to talk about payment plans.  They try to get you to put a hold on the art (leave a down payment) so no one can buy it but you. They know the chances of you backing out after making a deposit are far less than if you leave the gallery putting no money down-- because a hold is an emotional commitment.  For a presentation to be successful, the buyer not only has to have a mental image of the art in their home, but they also have to believe that if they don't buy it now, they'll never get another chance.

For anyone concerned about value-- dollars and cents-- the sales person usually talks about how well-known, distinguished or famous the artist is.  They might tell you their art is in museums, galleries and collections worldwide-- regardless of how important these museums, galleries or collections might be, or what the actual facts are.  They know full well that most people won't ask for specifics; they simply take the seller's statements as truth, and assume the artist must be famous if the seller says so. 

They might say there's no such thing as an artist being this big or this popular without their work becoming more and more sought after, while at the same time, never saying anything about it going up in value or what it might be worth at any future date. Implying an increase, yes. Stating it, no. The most predatory galleries will say things like the artist's work is getting more and more popular, that the gallery can't keep up with the demand, that they keep running out of available work-- whether any of that is accurate or not.

If you hesitate, they ask whether you're comfortable with the price.  They try to get you to make an offer.  If the standoff continues, they'll probably bring in "the director" to help close the sale.  How do they do that without arousing suspicion?  They say the director's been working with the artist a lot longer than they have.  They tell you that this is a special treat; the director's not always at the gallery, doesn't speak with very many customers, and that hopefully they'll come in and share a few words.  The "director" is always one of the gallery's best closers.

Other types of statements you're likely to hear during the course of a sales presentation, whether or not they're accurate-- or even true: 

*  "Business is great!"  Even if the economy is in turmoil or the gallery is on the verge of bankruptcy, business is always spectacular. People need confidence to buy and they won't if the market isn't solid, the gallery isn't successful, or they don't think other people are buying either. Speaking of economic crises, don't be surprised if a gallery tells you those are the best times to buy art, and it's when the art market soars the most (not true).  In other words, don't waste your breath asking how business is or whether this is a good time to buy art. The answers are always Yes and Yes.

*  "This is our most popular artist" (whether they are or not).

*  "This is a mid-career artist" (the implication being that they have many successful years ahead of them, they're only getting better, their work will become harder and harder to buy, that the market will only strengthen, and to buy now before this all happens).  

*  "This is like buying a Picasso when Picasso was young" (whether it is or not, and it hardly ever is).

*  "For this artist to have works in so many places, their importance and the value of their art is secured" (nonsensical mumbo jumbo like this is not uncommon). 

*  "This is our last one" (even though they might have plenty more in the back room or basement).  If a buyer returns at any point and sees another one on display and for sale and asks about it, they're may be told a story like a collector wanted to sell one back, the gallery bought it, and here it is.  Fact:  Predatory galleries RARELY buy their art back.

*  "This is our most popular piece" (maybe it is, maybe it isn't).

*  "This is the most popular piece in the country right now."  How do you prove a claim like this anyway? What doesit even mean?  Is there a chart of the top selling artworks in America?  If there is, I'd love to see it. 

*  "The artist is older" (the implication being that the artist will likely die soon and the art will increase in value). Never stating; only implying.  

*  You're told that the more people who are exposed to the artist's art, the more the demand will increase, and the more artists who'll be influenced by the style, the unspoken implication once again being that the art will increase in value as a consequence. 

*  "This art has multiple authentications" (whatever that means).  They know most buyers will take statements like this at face value, be unlikely to ask for specifics, or even know what specifics to ask for.

*  "All of our art comes from estates" (whether it does or not, and it often doesn't).  A substantial percentage of the art these galleries sell actually comes from wholesalers, other resellers, from the artists themselves, or from auctions where anyone can bid.

*  "We sell one of these a day" (whether they do or not).

*  "I just did a presentation on this piece, the people are at dinner and coming back when they're done, so whoever decides first gets it."  Here's a thought... maybe just let the dinner people buy it.


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