Howard L. Rehs is a dealer specializing in 19th Century art. Rehs Gallery is located on 57th St. but attends art fairs around the country regularly.
After seeing us at an art fair two years ago, a very good client and friend of the gallery sent an email asking the following: How do people who go to shows know who to trust? How can someone really believe that what a dealer is telling them is, in fact, the truth? Does someone actually walk into a show and just buy what they see? How does someone do their due diligence?
While walking the show floor, the first thing you will notice is a dealer’s overall presentation. If a booth looks pretty sloppy (no order to the hanging, broken frames, unrestored works, etc.) you generally find the works to be a mixed bag … many of which fall into the ‘decorative’ category. When I see booths like that, my first thought is that the dealer is more of a merchant and not a real expert. Now, that is not to say you cannot find a gem buried somewhere, or that the dealer does not ‘know their stuff’; but normally the first impression is the right one. I believe that dealers who present a clean, neat, space with an attractive arrangement tend to appreciate the works they are offering and typically have more knowledge about them. In addition, the works should be properly labeled with the artist’s name, title, size, etc. and if the prices are not posted, then a list should be easily accessible … not hidden in a draw or in the dealer’s pocket; you want to be sure that the price you are being quoted is the same other people are.
Here is a great story about pricing. I was standing in a dealer’s booth at a show talking to the owner. There was a painting hanging near us that I know was priced at $500,000 (I had seen it at a number of other shows). While standing in the booth (on the last day of the show) a woman walked in and one of the salesmen started talking to her. At some point in the conversation he said the following: “… the painting is priced at $600,000, but it is the last day of the show and I would really like to make a deal, so I will offer it to you for $400,000.” WOW, he just raised the price 20% and then cut it by 33.3%; I was shocked and wondered if that would really work? I walked back to my booth and watched the women talk to the salesman for another 10 or 15 minutes; I am pleased to report that she finally walked out—without the painting. Now I know there are different sales techniques, but that one seemed a little devious to me. The sad thing is that I know people do fall for that sales technique.
Now let’s get back to our client’s questions. One of which was: does someone actually walk into a show and just buy what they see? Over my 30 years I have found that there are various types of the people attending shows; for my discussion, I will stick to the three main groups. The first are your veterans, or seasoned buyers … these people know what they are looking at, have a fairly good understanding of the market and just need some of the facts about a particular work in order to make a decision. These buyers can often make a decision on the spot … and many do. Hey, I know this might sound strange but one of the main reasons us dealers do shows is to make sales!
Then we have the lightly seasoned buyer—people who might have bought an inexpensive work before, but have yet to take the big plunge. If these people have done the right prep work—determined the periods of art they like, visited local museums and galleries, and searched the internet to read up on the dealers who will be exhibiting—then they can come to a show and actually buy something; but typically they spend a great deal of time roaming the show and comparing pieces from different dealers. It usually takes two or three shows before they get comfortable with making a decision on the spot.
Finally there is the unseasoned buyer … or newbie—people who have no idea what they are doing and come to a show just to look and maybe buy something if it strikes their fancy. Over the years I have seen many people like this and at times, they end up with a very bad experience.
Here is an example: I was at a recent show and watched a couple wander the floor for a few hours … you could tell they had no idea what they were doing. They ended up at a competitor’s booth and I watched as the owner tried, for more than an hour, to close a deal on a painting by an artist whose work we handle. I sat there wondering why these people were not in our booth asking questions about the 6 pieces we had since I know they stopped in earlier. Anyway, the couple finally exited the other dealer’s booth and headed straight for us. They walked over to the works we had on display and started asking questions. I spent the next 30 minutes giving them a crash course on the artist, the sizes he favored, the changes his technique went through during his career and how prices changed depending on when a work was created. They then looked at the prices posted and said: “Oh, your works are less expensive because they are later pieces” … I said, “Later than what?” Their reply: “later than the work in the booth over there”. Now I started to smile and went on to explain that in fact the other dealer’s work was a much later example (turns out he told them it was a very early piece) … and how did I know that—because the dealer bought it from us and we gave them the provenance right back to the artist and the date the work was painted. After that, they had no idea what to believe and I watched as they left our booth and quickly walked out the front door. Not only was this a bad experience for them, but for us as well; here was a couple who might never return—and it is hard to blame them. The sad thing is that there is no way to protect people from this type of misrepresentation. Sometimes the dealer in question does it with full knowledge and other times they really have no idea what they are selling … other than it is a work by the artist—or is it?
So: how does one trust the seller/dealer? The only way I know is to do your homework and spend time talking with them. Before you go to a show look at the list of participants and then go to their web sites. See what they offer and what sort of reputation they have. Are they considered true experts in the field/fields they deal in? Do other people in the art world look to them for advice? Have they had any serious legal issues? Do they deal in a wide range of items or do they have a focus … I personally find it hard to believe that any one dealer can be a true expert in all periods of art and antiques. Those who have a tighter focus will probably be better versed in the works they sell. If you take a little time doing your due diligence, your show experience will be much more rewarding.
Some final things to keep in mind when visiting a show — not all dealers are created equal and some of the top level shows will include mediocre or marginal dealers. I am sure you are wondering: how can that be since it is a top level show? Well, it all comes down to money. Show promoters start out with the best of intentions, but as show time gets closer and they still have space to rent, they begin to lower their sights. I have been in many shows that have claimed to be only for the “best of the best”, and when we arrive we find that some of the dealers are far from the best. What we hope for is that the visitors will realize the difference … but you do need to be careful.
On August 7th I received an email from a woman in California informing us that someone broke into her home and stole a number of items; among them was an Edouard Cortès. I wrote back and thanked her for the information and told her that without some sort of image, there was little anyone could do. On the 19th she sent a blurry photo of the work – but it was enough to see the subject matter … a view of Place de la Republique. I thanked her and said I would let her know if it came our way.
On August 24th, after setting up our booth in Baltimore, I started to walk the show floor to see what else was on display. As I passed another dealer’s booth I paused and looked at a large, early, Cortes that was on display. The dealer walked up to me and asked what I thought … my response was: “I think that is a stolen painting”. He assured me it could not be and that he recently purchased the work from a dealer in California. My reply: “I was just contacted by an individual in California and was informed that a Cortes and Tiffany lamp were taken from their home … they even included photos.” I told the dealer I would go back to my booth and check my emails to be certain; sure enough, it was the same painting.
The dealer came to my booth and was shocked … but very thankful that I brought the matter to his attention. He, in turn, contacted the individual he bought the painting from and told them about the situation. The owner of the painting was informed about the recovery of the work and she called the detective in LA … who then called me.
Two days later the painting was returned to the owner and the police were hot on the trail of the individual who stole the work … I have yet to hear if the thief was apprehended.
As of now, the dealer who had the painting in his booth is out the money he spent … and he will have to try to recover the funds from the dealer he bought it from (who, I have been told, does not have it anymore).
The most important lesson to be learned from this story is that if a work of art is stolen from you, not only do you contact local law enforcement, but contact the dealers who handle the artist’s works. More than likely, the thief is going to try to get rid of the work ASAP and one of those dealers might be offered the piece.
It is also interesting to note that had I not been at this show, the painting would have been offered for sale and may have even sold to an unsuspecting buyer. The title issue with the painting may have not surfaced until many years later … when the potential new owner tried to sell the work and it was flagged; at that point, they would be out the money rather than the dealer.
Now I am sure you are wondering: how can you protect yourself from this? The answer is it is very hard to. What you can do is try to buy from dealers who have a great reputation in the business, have been around for a long time and guarantee everything they sell. Should a problem ever arise in the future, odds are those dealers/galleries will still be in business and will stand behind the works they sold. In other words, you will get your money back and they will have to deal with the legal issues.