The New Collector’s Guide to Good Manners, According to Design Dealer Patrick Parrish
According to design dealer Patrick Parrish, great collectors share several characteristics—passion, knowledge, obsessiveness, and curiosity—but they can also be made, not just born. In his new book, The Hunt: Navigating the Worlds of Art and Design (2018), the dealer advises would-be collectors on how to get their toes wet, and eventually dive right in. Unlike many guides for new collectors, Parrish’s book stresses the importance of etiquette—a reminder that the art market is made of human beings with feelings, who, as such, would prefer to transact with collectors who are gracious and respectful. In the excerpt below, Parrish commits to paper the unwritten rules on how to become everyone’s favorite collector.
Visit galleries often, as the shows change every four to six weeks. Always sign the guest book of those you like and leave your email address, so you’ll know the upcoming schedule and get invited to the opening. Galleries, especially here in New York City, can sometimes be a bit of a snooty affair, starting from the moment you walk in the door. If you can’t see the gallerina’s face, you are in trouble!
The higher the reception desk and the less head you can see, the snootier it will be. But don’t let that stop you! Remember that the people who work reception are the lowest on the gallery’s totem pole. They probably make a quarter of what you make at your job as they are notoriously underpaid, hence the attitude. I say this because I want you to take their posture with a grain of salt (and knowledge) and roll with it. Be super polite and nice; they likely won’t care or show any reaction, but on the inside, they will appreciate it.
Once past the gauntlet, look around, take pictures (always ask first, though these days no one usually cares unless it’s a historical exhibition with works on loan), and take the show in. Curious about a price? Ask. They will tell you. They’ll probably even give you a price list that you can walk around with (make sure to always return it). Grab the press release; they’re usually in a stack on the desk and are a great source of info about the artist(s).
Believe it or not, that amazing artist you saw on Instagram will more than likely agree to a studio visit if you ask. So ask! Studio visits are one of my very favorite things to do. They give you an insight into the artist’s process, technique, and soul! Seriously, the studio is one of the most intimate places in the world, and to be invited in is truly a privilege. Artists (most) are dying to share what they feel so passionately about. So DM away, I swear you will not be disappointed!
Once in the studio, here is what you do and don’t do:
Do be on time—they maybe won’t be, but you need to be. Just because they sit around all day smearing paint on canvas doesn’t mean they aren’t very busy.…
Don’t touch anything or take any photos without asking. And never Instagram anything without permission. Taking a sneaky pic and posting it will get you banned not only by that artist, but by all of their friends.
Don’t assume you can buy something from the artist at half price from their studio. Any ethical artist that is represented will either refer you to their gallery for a sale or split the sale with the gallerist. Anything else is really bad form.
I’m naturally biased here, but the artist/gallery relationship is a symbiotic one, and to keep it healthy and stable this needs to be how sales happen. If an artist is unrepresented, or has no formal contract with a gallery, then totally go for it. But know that buying from artists can be tricky as they can be weird about money and sales, but if they aren’t, you can have a lot of fun and get great stuff. Plus, you get to go to their studio, and as I mentioned earlier, artists’ studios are amazing places to be and hang out. You will always learn something. And don’t forget to bring a six-pack of beer as a studio-warming gift!
Etiquette in galleries and with dealers
First off, design dealers will, for the most part, be much easier to talk to than art dealers (sorry art dealers, but it’s true), and you will probably even end up talking to the owner. If you went into the top design gallery in the world, which I believe is Patrick Seguin in Paris, and asked to talk to Patrick about a Gagosian, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell you would get to talk to Larry Gagosian in person, unless you were some sort of über-VIP.
I keep harping on this, but being polite and respectful in the gallerist’s or dealer’s space is crucial to a good rapport. Remember, they spend as much time there as they do at their home, and are in a sense at home there, so act like you are a guest in someone’s house. Talking on the phone as you walk around and look will automatically disqualify you from getting any respect at all (not to mention you won’t really “see” the work), and you could easily be asked to get off the phone or even leave altogether. Worth repeating in this day and age: It’s always good to ask if it’s cool to take pictures.
Don’t be afraid to not know about something, as that will give the dealer a chance to tell you about it. Faking it will do you no good, and the dealer will know you are full of shit immediately and, unfortunately, dismiss you as someone who is not very serious about what they, the dealer, are very passionate about. Talking about price is fine, but wait until the very end of the conversation, maybe even the next day if you are really interested in buying. Believe it or not, the more you talk about something, and the more inquisitive you are, the better the chance you have of getting a nice price down the road.
This is the opposite of a flea market, where you never express any interest in something great, but instead comment casually about how nice it is, giving off the impression to the dealer that you could take it or leave it. When price does come up, know that you can almost always get a 10% discount at the top art galleries and 15–20% at the top design galleries. If you are looking at contemporary design, 10% is usually the max, while at secondary market vintage or contemporary, it’s 15–20%. Lower level galleries and antique shops are more likely to discount more deeply, but I would never expect any more than 25–30%. More than that, and you should wonder why they are so desperate to get rid of it!
Things never to say to a gallerist
Very important, avoid saying:
“I’ll give you…” That style of negotiating may go over in a souk or Middle Eastern market, but nowhere else, so don’t even try it.
“This is: damaged, dirty, ugly, broken, common, overrated, overpriced, et cetera, et cetera.” When you actually want the piece, insulting or demeaning it will never, ever, ever, ever work, yet I hear it all the time when I’m at a lower-level antique show or flea market. It is an amateur move, and one that will get you nowhere fast. There are dealers who are known to do this, and they are universally hated, ignored, and avoided by everyone else.
Asking for a discount of more than 20% in the design world and 10% in the art world is risky unless you are very friendly with the dealer. Asking for 30–50% off, unless offering something else in return, like a trade or cash, might get you asked to leave the gallery or shop.
How to make dealers like you, even if you spend no money
I can’t stress this enough: Be curious and show up to all of their openings! Write about the artist/designer’s work on Instagram, or blog it (if you are an old-timer). Just because you don’t spend money doesn’t mean you can’t be a valuable asset/customer/fan of the gallery. Sometimes spending $1,000 on a piece of pottery versus simply Instagramming that piece of pottery can ultimately carry equal weight influence-wise, and smart gallerists know that, and will make it worth your while when you do have the money to spend on something. If this business was solely about money, we would all be hedge fund managers or brain surgeons instead.
Good questions to ask when you are interested in something but know nothing about it
What is this amazing piece?
When was it made?
How does it relate to _____ (someone you do know about)?
Where did they go to school?
Who are their contemporaries?
Are they still alive?
Do they have an auction record?
What else can you tell me about them?
Ask nicely for the best price. Never say “I’ll give you…” which is so important to remember that it’s worth mentioning again so soon. If you can’t tell, this really is a major turn off and pet peeve of mine. Feel free to offer a little less than what they say is their best price, but no more than 5–10% unless you have a very friendly rapport with the dealer and/or are a friend. Don’t be afraid to ask for terms (time to pay/payment plan) but know the discount will be less. Don’t play games or string anyone along. It’s OK to say that it is too much for your current budget, or that you changed your mind, but the sooner you do that, the better. Don’t put anything on hold for more than 48 hours.
Feel free to ask to take the piece “out on approval.” How that works is that you give the gallery a credit card, and they arrange for shipping, which you pay for, to your place. If it looks great, you keep it and pay for it immediately. If it doesn’t work, you return it to the gallery at your expense. This is more common with design galleries but art galleries also do it. If the piece you are interested in is part of a show, you will obviously have to wait until the show is over.
Cash is king. The faster you pay, the more the gallery will like you. The longer you take, the more you will annoy them. A check is not cash, but better than a credit card. If you pay with a credit card, remember that the gallery is paying between 2% and 5% to process that card, and that could affect the discount they give you.
Insurance, rules of thumb
If you have the resources, always insure everything for replacement value. If not, and there is a problem, you will get only 30–50% of its true value, maybe even less. If you’re buying from an auction house, some credit cards, such as American Express, will cover your purchases and give you more leverage if something goes wrong, is damaged, or is misrepresented—but always read the fine print at each house before you bid.
Patrick Parrish is a design dealer, the owner of Patrick Parrish Gallery, and author of The Hunt: Navigating the Worlds of Art and Design (2018).