Buying Art: The Fine Print

Pricing, Taxes, and Shipping:

The prices that galleries quote are for the artwork only. If the work will stay within the EU, then VAT may apply. If the work is to be shipped outside of the EU, then there may be import duties imposed by the country of destination, and the gallery’s director or registrar should be able to help with this, as well as an estimated shipping cost. Shipping is normally an additional cost, but it may be negotiated. Sometimes if a gallery is not willing to discount the price of an artwork, they will be amenable to complimentary shipping.

Placing Holds:

Galleries will agree to hold an artwork for you if you need additional time to make a decision. On opening day, holds may already be in place, so your name will be added to the gallery’s queue. Holds can be as short as an hour and as long as a day, so be sure to clarify with the gallery when your hold begins and when it ends. Also, don’t forget to write down the name and phone number of the gallery’s director so you have a direct contact. If you have a work on hold and decide not to purchase it, out of courtesy, call the director to let him or her know you are passing so that they may offer it to the next collector in the queue.

Exploring Your Options:

Remind yourself that the booth is showcasing a limited representation of what is more readily available elsewhere. Look at the current selection as a way to get a sense of what the works feel like in person so that when you next see the artist’s work online or elsewhere, you will have a reference for surface texture, scale, etc. 

Negotiating Prices: 

Ask for a discount. 10% discounts are standard practice, but don’t be afraid to ask for more. Take the gallery director aside, perhaps to a quieter area of the booth, and share your best price for a work in an effort to negotiate the price that works best for you and the gallery.

Your Cheat Sheet/Etiquette for Speaking with a Gallerist:

Despite the commercial context of art fairs, it is not uncommon to see wall labels without pricing information or checklists not readily available within the gallery’s booth. Do not fret. This is an opportunity to engage the representatives at the gallery and to share your enthusiasm for the work. 

How to engage the gallerist: 

Inquire about the work itself but not the price specifically: “May I ask you to tell me a bit more about this artist/work?” This opens the field generally for the gallerist to begin where they would like—whether it be with the artist’s process, the collections the artist belongs to, the upcoming shows the artist is included in, why this is a particularly good example within the artist’s oeuvre, etc. It gets them talking and yields various cues for you to pick up for further engagement. This is a prime opportunity for a conversation between the two of you to ensue. 

If the work is by an artist you are unfamiliar with or cannot pronounce: 

Describe it by a point of your finger and limited descriptive words: “the sculpture in the corner,” or “the large, colorful portrait.”

How to ask about the price:

If the price of the work is not readily available, or the gallerist has neglected to mention it, do not hesitate to directly ask “...and is this available?” and if yes, “What are you asking?” or simply “How much?” Remember that it is not considered vulgar to ask prices, especially at art fairs, but asking too soon or without tact may leave you without a prayer. 

If you are already familiar with the artist and current market, you may inquire by directly referencing the work, “Has this work by X been placed?” or by nodding or pointing to the work: “What is something like this?”

How to negotiate: 

There are no hard and fast rules of negotiation here. The artwork is worth however much someone wants to pay for it. If you are inclined to dicker, assume they’ve anticipated this in the ticket price by adding not “Is there..” but rather “What is the room on this?” Alternatively, start with a figure that you know is low, by saying “I’d like to make an offer of X amount, will you consider?”

If the work is already sold:

If the gallerist indicates the work is sold, ask if there is another that they can show you (it could be just around the corner in the closet or a click on their iPad away). That being said, the artworks at fairs move quickly and if you are serious about buying, do not wait. Strike a deal, if not a firm hold.

You can often tell if a piece has been sold by the red dots placed next to it. Red dots vary in function. Psychologically, they may be used to increase interest; if the work is sold, you may be more inclined to look at a work by the same artist nearby without the red signifier. They also prove useful when looking at photographs or prints by indicating how many prints in the edition have sold. 

Explore the Gallery Guide to Art Basel, Design Miami/ Basel, and LISTE.

Images from Design Miami/ Basel 2013 courtesy of Word Red Eye; cover image by James Harris.

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