Artists often talk about the very real difficulties they’ve had with dealers or consultants—late payments, non payments, damaged work, suddenly closed galleries—you know the list. Well, it’s not only artists who get the go-around. Recently I received an email from a European gallery that I’ve blogged about in my reporting of the art fairs. The dealer was at his wit's end, and it was clear he was asking around wherever he thought he could find help.
Was I familiar with the XYZ gallery in ( . . . a city outside of Manhattan)? Apparently the European dealer had lent the owner of this gallery half a dozen paintings for a group show, at the latter’s request. Now, some eight or nine months after the show, the European dealer was trying to retrieve the work. There had been no news of a sale. Indeed, there had been no news from the American dealer at all. Calls and faxes had gone unanswered.
As a courtesy I contacted a few art friends in the region where this gallery is located and asked if they knew the erstwhile dealer or the gallery.
“Bad news,” said one. “He’s known for not paying.”
“His gallery is empty and he hasn’t been around,” said another. This person offered the names of a few dealers in the more immediate vicinity of the rogue and suggested I pass them on to the European dealer, which I did. There was even a private cell phone number passed along.
As far as I know, the artwork has not been returned.
There are many things I don’t know about the situation:
. Did the European dealer know the American dealer before sending or relinquishing the work?
. If not, did the European dealer exercise due diligence about the American dealer and gallery?
. Did the European dealer take a credit card as a deposit? (Is this even done between dealers? I know it’s often done between dealers and consultants, or between dealers and clients taking the work on approval.)
So this is a post with no answers, just a caveat: Artists, if it can happen to a dealer, it can happen to you.
A few suggestions for artists:
. Don’t send your work to a stranger who promises to put it in a show. Sure it feels good to be contacted by someone who professes to love your work, but understand the nature of the contact. A lot of smaller-city dealers and consultants are surfing the web to find art that interests them. While many are totally legitimate (I know, because I have worked with a few), others are just interested in the quick fix; they're looking for a particular color or size to go over a client's sofa. You might break your neck to deliver a work on time, but if it doesn't serve the purpose, it may be a long time, if ever, before you see it again.
. Ask around: Do you have artist friends in the area who know the dealer in question? Do you know anyone in the gallery city who either knows the gallery or would be willing to check it out for you? Don’t be afraid to ask a friend of a friend who shows (or used to show) with the gallery what his or her experience is (or has been) like.
. . . . . I was contacted by a dealer in an American resort city who said he loved my work and wanted to purhase it up front. Hmm. I knew the city but not the dealer or his gallery, so I asked a few friends in the area to check it out when they were in town. "Nice space and good light, but not the quality of art you want to show with," said two collector friends, citing mass-produced pictures of sailboats and matadors. Eek. "Cheese factory," came the succinct report from a fellow artist. That was all I needed to know. And, indeed, when I happened to pass by the place several months later, it was everything my friends had described. And less.
. Exercise due diligence. Is the gallery a member of the Art Dealers’ Association in that city? Have you seen ads from the gallery? Have its shows been reviewed, either in the local papers or in the national magazines? Does it have a web presence? Is it listed in the annual Art in America guide to galleries? If the gallery doesn’t turn up in any of your research, that's a red flag.
. Use the artist information network—i.e. email, Facebook, or other informal communication. That AiA guide lists the names of artists involved with each gallery (it's a list provided by the gallery)
. Don’t consign a lot of work the first time you do business with a new gallery (unless, of course you are familiar with it, or you know others who have worked with the dealer to good result).
. Get a signed consignment form. If the gallery doesn't give you one, make up a list and give a copy to the gallery. You want two signatures on the consignment: yours and the person to whom you are consigning the work on behalf of the gallery. Make sure it's dated.
. Go to the opening. Take photographs of your work on the wall, of the dealer with your work. This is the part of your due diligence that's fun. Or at least it will be fun if your due diligence has been duly diligent.
And heed that funny feeling in your gut. If it’s telling you to not get involved, don’t.
Good readers: Have any bad gallery things happened to you?
Update 7.13.10: New York Post reports that Chelsea dealer Harry Stendhal is accused of swindling two well-known artists