The difference between a fair and a gallery lies in the nature of the relationship between the dealer and the collector. The nature of the interaction is decidedly unique and both collector and dealer approach visiting fairs and galleries in different ways. It is important to understand the dealers intention at an art fair; not simply to sell art, but often to sell the gallery.
A fine art dealership has two identifiable commodities—its artists (artworks) and its opinion—the latter being monetised from time to time in the guise of publications and advisory activities. A seasoned, well-respected dealer correctly contributes to pushing art forward for the sake of art through informed opinion, a good eye, and an ability to convince people of the strength of one artist versus another.
The most important commodity however is the artist him/herself. An art dealership is not much more than a decor shop without stable artists. You can measure the success of a gallery by the calibre and reputation of the artists it represents. A dealer friend once quipped, “the coolest dealers in the world represent the coolest artists in the world”.
So how does a gallery go about attracting the best, newest, freshest artists to its camp? Many factors play a part, but the two most recognised ‘wants’ of an artist are the volume of sales and amount of international exposure. To quote the quintessential artist, “I need to eat, and someone in Berlin needs to know I am”.
Galleries mostly seek out collectors in their immediate geographic reach to keep artworks leaving the front door. A few global galleries—White Cube, Gogassian, Opera, and a few others—have branches in multiple cities and their stable of artists have a global presence. For the rest…art fairs, art fairs, and more art fairs. Artists demand it. Not only is the gallery trying to sell art, but often an ulterior motive of presenting is to peacock the gallery to other artists. The dealer has to show non-stable artists what a great job the gallery is doing for its own artists, with healthy prices, to assure potential converts that their careers will be safe if they cross over.
This phenomena not only applies to high end fine art galleries, but it also effects the Blue Chip Global players. This psychology causes price volatility at a fair. Often the price starts higher than if you bought it off the wall at the gallery, and slowly corrects during the fair. Dealers wont adjust the price list, but will gain a lot of flex during price negotiation.
If visiting a fair with the intent of buying, here are a few recommendations. Firstly, stay the weekend. Fairs always fall over a weekend, and the ones worth visiting are in fabulous cities. Stay until Sunday, and if you can help it, only buy on Sunday. Of course if there is something coveted, and resistance is futile, go ahead but negotiate on the price. Many factors influence a dealer when pricing works for the fair (recently, foreign exchange rates have made South American and African purchases very favourable), and thus builds in some margin into the retail price to compensate. Also the cost of getting works home if they don’t sell is inevitable, and as the closing bell approaches, pressure to avoid these costs increases. If you buy on a Sunday it is often much easier to negotiate. Even if the fair has been a stellar success for the dealer, they will want to offload works. Moderate interest will lead to a price offer almost all of the time.
Fairs are enjoyable for the obvious reasons, Firstly, you can take in a lot in a relatively short space of time. It is a little like reading the <Cheat’s Guide to the Classics>, <Sense and Sensibility> and <Moby Dick> condensed to 25 pages each. Secondly, viewing so many artists in one confined area is very useful in spotting talent and future greatness (conversely, bullshit is easier to spot, mostly because there is so much of it). Lastly, fairs are a good place to buy, if you know how to play the game. If not careful, the price you pay may be influenced by the aforementioned psyche of the dealer, “I must be cool…I must be expensive…I must be cool”.
And of course, do not miss the opening parties which are usually raucous and splendid, riddled with artists, dealers, and of course buyers. With considered research, assurance and understanding of the tactical game that is an art fair, a buyer can walk away with a loved thing, that was bought at a favourable price.
Nick Dreyer is owner of Auriti Advisory, Boston’s partner for offering clients expertise in establishing and developing their art collections.