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  • Are you an Art Target? Part III
    How Predatory Commercial Galleries Sell Art



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    I've been warning you all for years about predatory art galleries and how some of less scrupulous among them sell art to naïve and unsuspecting buyers, previously detailing how they operate in the articles Are You an Art Target? and Are You an Art Target? Part II . These galleries are most often found in high-traffic tourist destinations and in popular upscale malls and shopping districts. They're usually located directly on the street, have large show windows, are flashy, spacious and brightly lit, have well-appointed interiors, and stay open into the night. They sell art by artists whose work has wide commercial appeal and often with names that most people recognize-- in other words, art that's 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. And it's at those galleries where this tale begins....

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

    In case you think that the most predatory of these art 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. These galleries are not interested in educating you about art (the less you know, the better), they have no interest in 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. Period. End of story. So how do they get their eager little fingers into your wallet?

    A good predatory gallery sales person can tell within minutes approximately how much money you have in your bank account and whether they stand a reasonable chance of getting any of it. To begin with, they study 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 are dressed. Parents won't necessarily wear money, the interviewee tells me, but their kids will. People in their 40s-50s are prime candidates as are those who talk with each other about the art they're looking at.

    Skilled predatory personnel can also tell can tell if someone's poor, or in other words, not worth spending even a minute with. They avoid backpacks like the plague. Artists are uniformly ignored as well; either they have no money or they're trying to hawk their art, or both. Sales persons even go so far as to categorize by accents and will very likely ignore you if you're Indian (from India), Russian or French. "Indians ask too many questions and don't buy; Russians don't buy; the French are too educated." These galleries like to hire sales people with accents, though, as they tend to come across as knowledgeable professionals.

    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 only look around the gallery and not 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 or talk about it are definite possibilities.

    Those who get "qualified" from a distance (as potential buyers) are soon approached... and interrogated. The sales person's goal is to find out what you do for a living and then translate that profession into discretionary cash. 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 or 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 likely buyer, it's on to the presentation proper. The sales person has been instructed on how to use body language, 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 rather than next to you, shoulder to shoulder, in a passive, non-confrontational, open, nonthreatening stance. They act casual and friendly even tough they're on a singular mission to sell you art and are aggressively searching for any clues as to how to make that sale happen. They know that people will buy from enthusiastic sellers who smile a lot, so expect that from beginning to end. The focus is totally on you, the most important person in the world.

    As soon as you gravitate towards a specific piece 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). The best sellers don't even ask your permission to do this; they simply take the art off the wall or pedestal 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 for a sale to happen, a potential buyer has to be inside a viewing room 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 to 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 tell you something like they're going to adjust the light to better show the art. Sometimes the light switch is actually behind the door, which means they have to close it in order to adjust the dimmer. Now that you're officially cornered, they begin to vary the levels of light. They talk about how the appearance of the art changes as the light varies, like this effect is unique to this work of art. It's not. The "light change effect" is actually true for ALL art, but customers don't know that, and as a result, varying light levels has become one of the most effective closing tactics of predatory galleries.

    The sales person will proceed to romanticize the art. They ask you where you want to hang it, to describe the location. They ask what the décor is like. They show you some frames. The goal is for you to imagine the art in your home, imagine you already own it, to imagine the art changing as the light changes in the room where it will be on display, from morning to afternoon to evening, and to imagine yourself enjoying every last minute of it.

    They gradually ratchet the pressure, telling you that you'll continue to grow to love the art, that this experience is only the beginning. They 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 onto the table so they can talk about and help you overcome them. They suggest payment plans. They try to get you to put a hold on the art (leave a down payment) knowing that 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 talks about how "decorated" the artist is, whatever that means. They tell you the 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 don't ask for specifics; they simply accept the seller's statements as truth, and assume the artist must be famous if the seller says so. They tell you there's no such thing as an artist being this big or this popular without their work becoming more and more sought after, without it going up in value. They say the artist's work has been appreciating, that the gallery can't keep up with the demand, that they keep running out-- 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 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 they don't think anyone else is buying either. Speaking of economic crises, don't be surprised if a gallery tells you that's the best time to buy art, and it's when the 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.
    * "This is our most popular artist."
    * "This is a mid-career artist" (the implication being that they're relatively young, the have many successful years ahead of them, they'll get better, their work will become harder and harder to acquire, and that art like this often goes up in value).
    * "This is like buying a Picasso when Picasso was young" (whether it is or not, and it usually isn't). How do you substantiate a ridiculous claim like that anyway?
    * "For this artist to have works in so many places, their importance and the value of their art is secured" (whatever that means).
    * "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 their limited edition print or sculpture on display and for sale again and asks about it, they're likely to be told that someone 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."
    * "This is the most popular piece in the United States right now." How do you prove a claim like this anyway? 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).
    * You're told that the more people are exposed to the art, the more the demand will increase, and the more artists who'll be influenced by the style, the implication once again being that the art will increase in value as a consequence.
    * "Our Dali's (or fill in the blank with the artist of your choice) are triple-authenticated" (whatever that means). They know 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."
    * "I just did a presentation on this piece, the people are at dinner and coming back when they're done, so whoever gets it first gets it." Here's a thought... maybe just let the dinner people get it.

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