Art Market

How to Decide Where to Consign Your Art

Justin Kamp
Mar 16, 2020 10:23PM

Installation view of the collection of Lorna and Frank Dunphy, former business manager to Damien Hirst, prior to going on auction on September 14, 2018. Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images for Sotheby’s.

The world of art market consignments can be a dizzying place. The decision to part with a once-beloved work in the first place is so fraught. Then the terminology and paperwork—from pictures and provenance to public auctions and private sales—can leave potential consignors feeling overwhelmed. On top of that, choosing where to consign can be difficult, especially as the respective strengths of galleries and auction houses are constantly shifting.

Just last month, three mega-galleries (Acquavella, Gagosian, and Pace Gallery) beat out the world’s biggest auction houses to secure the consignment of the $450-million Donald Marron collection, a rare gallery victory in the high-stakes competition for top-tier consignments. That news seemed to portend a shift in the ways major consignments are handled. In this landscape of uncertainty, Artsy spoke to representatives from galleries and auction houses alike to get a better handle on just what factors a collector should consider before consigning to either.

Consigning to galleries

Portrait of Arne Glimcher (far left) and Bill Acquavella (center left) with Larry Gagosian (center right) and Marc Glimcher (far right). © Axel Dupeux. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Camino Real), 2011. © Cy Twombly Foundation. Courtesy of the Donald B. Marron Family Collection, Acquavella Galleries, Gagosian, and Pace Gallery.


Perhaps the biggest advantage to gallery consignments is specificity—most galleries that partake in the secondary market do so only with works by a limited range of artists whose markets they know well.

“The majority of our secondary market sales are for artists whom we have a long history with,” said Maria Bueno, a partner at Cheim & Read, whose secondary market activities include handling works by Joan Mitchell, Alice Neel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol. “In most instances where we decide not to move forward with a consignment, it is because we are not familiar with the artist’s market.”

With that history comes a highly specialized and targeted client list. “[Galleries] have the buyer group,” said Maya McLaughlin, the West Coast director at art advisory firm SFA Advisory. “They have the pool of people who have been collecting and supporting a particular artist.” If you’re worried about a work underperforming at auction, it may be better to consign it to the gallery that has the most experience with that artist’s work.

Related to a gallery’s specialization is its discretion. According to Bueno, one of the most common concerns among consignors is the potential overexposure of a given piece. In a public auction, works that fail to sell can be considered “tainted” in the eyes of potential future buyers, and the seller could end up being saddled with the piece for however many years it takes for the market to forget a flop. Gallery sales, on the other hand, are conducted privately. This not only ensures that a work’s market perception goes untouched, but that both buyer and seller can remain anonymous if they so desire.

Brice Marden, Complements, 2004-07. © 2020 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Donald B. Marron Family Collection, Acquavella Galleries, Gagosian, and Pace Gallery.

The specialization offered by galleries applies to more than just buyers. Many galleries deal in both primary and secondary market sales, meaning brand-new artworks as well as those that have been sold at least once before. Such dealers made up 37 percent of all galleries surveyed for Art Basel and UBS’s “The Art Market 2020” report. If you’re selling work by a living artist whose work you hope to continue collecting in the future—especially one whose market is not yet well-established—it’s in your best interest to consign through that artist’s gallery. Not only will the gallery connect you with clients who are ready to buy, but they’ll appreciate you keeping the market for their artist’s work in their hands.

“You want them to control the price—it just keeps everyone a lot happier if you can go back and do it that way,” McLaughlin said. “If [the artist’s] market skyrockets too quickly, that’s a downside.” Helping dealers avoid the volatility of public auctions can be a boon for your relationship with their gallery and the artists they represent, and may open up doors for further acquisitions in the future.

A downside to all this specialization, of course, is a more limited potential market. While the Marron estate consignment may signal a leveling of the playing field between galleries and auction houses when it comes to the most renowned collections, the fact remains that auction houses have a much wider reach, with all of the biggest firms operating at an international level that most galleries can’t match.

Consigning to auction

Pablo Picasso’s Dora Maar au chat goes to auction at Sotheby’s New York during the Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in 2006. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

While a gallery’s strength comes mostly from its tight-knit interpersonal network, an auction house’s selling strength comes from its size—both in terms of staff and potential markets.

“We have about 60 selling departments,” said Molly Ott Ambler, the head of Impressionist and modern art for the Americas at Bonhams. “We’re proud that we can offer different selling venues to a work of art.” McLaughlin articulated a similar sentiment in explaining the appeal of consigning to an auction house: “If you have something that is not sensitive in any way, [auctions] can be a great avenue because of the broad audience.”

Consigning a work to sell at auction gives you access to all the amenities that big firms offer. That means a large, sales-focused staff, departments geared toward distinct types of art, robust marketing, and the opportunity to reach more remote markets.

Ambler said her main concern when considering potential consignments is what the market is seeking at that moment, and how the work will fit in with the collection she’s building for the next auction. This is where a larger, sales-focused staff can come in handy—in building their auction checklists, most firms will only consider works they’re confident will sell, and they’ll also focus on ensuring that your piece isn’t in direct competition with any other pieces up for auction. “If we know there are going to be 12 works by Picasso, for example…we know, look, this is as many as the market is going to absorb,” Ambler said.

A bigger staff also means dedicated marketing departments. In addition to the usual print and digital catalogues sent out in the months before auctions, Ambler mentioned specialized events, presale exhibitions, and an ever-growing digital presence.

“We have a following on all of our Instagram channels, and we do WeChat for our Asian audience,” she said. “We make videos, specifically of sculpture so that you can see works in the round, and we also do editorial videos and email blasts.”

Mark Rothko, Number 22 (reds), 1957. © 2020 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / ARS, New York. Courtesy of the Donald B. Marron Family Collection, Acquavella Galleries, Gagosian, and Pace Gallery.

Pablo Picasso, Femme au beret et la collerette (Woman with Beret and Collar), 1937. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy the Donald B. Marron Family Collection, Acquavella Galleries, Gagosian, and Pace Gallery.

Online sales opportunities are also more readily available through auction houses. (Full disclosure: Artsy offers consignment services that pair collectors with potential sellers, both auction houses and galleries.)

“Many of our clients are moving to more of an online model of viewing catalogs and considering art for purchasing,” Ambler said. The digital dimension includes both online auctions and consignment portals—not only can buyers purchase works digitally, but consignors can submit pictures, documentation, and descriptions of their work through online submission platforms in order to be considered for sale. While Gagosian introduced an online selling platform in 2018, most galleries still don’t offer such an option.

The drawbacks of auction consignments mostly have to do with the exposure that comes with auction houses’ wide reach. Works that go unsold at public auction can be difficult to sell afterward. Another downside of taking a work to auction can be the effect auction sales have on artists who are still producing.

“There’s an entire world of artists that might not be a market artist today, but they’re so important,” McLaughlin said. The effects of trying to push a work by such an artist through auction can be disastrous. “You can try to consign an artist that doesn’t have a market but is still so important within the art ecosystem, and they won’t take it, or it gets a crazy low estimate and the gallery is furious,” she said. On the other hand, buyers can speculate on an artist, making their prices skyrocket.

“You feel it when the primary works get harder and harder to get,” McLaughlin said. “You hope that they don’t get put into auction too quickly, so their market can develop.”

As always, the best way to mitigate these potential downsides is to have an honest and in-depth conversation with whomever you’re considering consigning your artwork to. “It’s a conversation,” McLaughlin said of any decision to sell a piece of art. “If you can ask as many questions, it becomes a much more productive and fulfilling experience.”

Justin Kamp