The value of an art collector’s relationship with their art dealer cannot be underestimated. But how do you find a reputable art dealer? A good rule of thumb is that the best dealers are usually members of a professional association such as the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) or the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD).
These bodies don’t just let anyone join: members have to be nominated, vetted and demonstrate a proven track record in order to become a member.
Dorsey Waxter, ADAA’s president, explains the year-long process that leads (for some) to membership: “A potential candidate has to be promoted from within the association with a proposer and four other seconders.
“Along with the letters of recommendation which begin the process there are visits to the gallery that are made by members of the committee, there is round table discussion and a series of meetings about the dealer’s gallery addressing the artists that they show, and what they have published about their artists – a very important part of membership is scholarly publications, and depth of knowledge in a particular field.
“At the end of that process the whole membership can vote on whether the dealer becomes a member. We look for longevity, seriousness, history of doing business; the whole process ensures that they are a stable gallery with a history and integrity that will stand behind work that’s sold.”
All of these steps help safeguard the collectors who buy from their members. SLAD has a similarly stringent admissions policy.
“We try to set standards for the art trade,” Christopher Battiscombe, director general of SLAD. “We like to think that all our members live up to very high standards and the general public can have confidence that when they are buying from one of our members that the dealer concerned does have a high standard of honesty and good practice and also knows what he’s talking about.
“They are people who have a very high level of stock and very extensive knowledge of the artists in which they deal.”
In the US, the ADAA sets out to be recognised as the gold standard in art dealing, with members that collectors can trust implicitly.
“That’s what we stand for, and I think that is extremely important because for a long time art dealers have the reputation of being ‘horse traders,’” says Linda Blumberg, ADAA’s executive director. “We have tried mightily to break that negative image that sometimes can pervade the press.”
Battiscombe agrees that professional bodies such as the ADAA and SLAD provide an added layer of protection for buyers.
“If a collector has a problem with one of our members, they can always come to us,” he says. “It doesn’t happen very often – more commonly I get calls from people who are unhappy with a painting they bought from someone who is not a member, in which case there is not much I can do.”
Associations such as the ADAA and SLAD are not only concerned with ensuring buyers can trust their dealers; they also recognise the value of a dealer’s relationship with the artists they represent, and their ability to nurture their artists’ careers.
“We try to illuminate the many ways in which a gallery contributes to the growth and nurturing of an artist,” says Blumberg. “This is something that galleries do quite exclusively, unlike any other person in the art field. It’s about choosing and presenting, documenting, and having a long term relationship.
“In many cases dealers have relationships with artists that span decades. The dealer frequently knows more than curators might know about a particular artist.”
By buying through a dealer, as opposed to at an auction, a collector has access to a great deal of accurate information about the artist they are collecting and about each piece of work they buy. This should be the case whether you are collecting work by an emerging artist or by an artist with a long career history.
“It’s incumbent on the dealer to be able to provide complete and accurate information about the authenticity and history of the work, and in the case of living artists to be able to portray what it is that the artist is presenting,” says Waxter. “The key here is for the dealer to be an open book and be able to have available information for any collector to be able to partake of.”
Battiscombe adds that because dealers want to nurture their relationships with collectors, they will often go above and beyond what they have to do in order to maintain confidence with their collectors.
“They have to stand behind their judgement, and the collector should have confidence that the dealer knows what he’s talking about and that the art which they sell is what they say it is,” he says.
Such is the expertise available through its members that the ADAA has its own appraisal department.
“This department came about in order to try to be more compliant with the reality of the market,” says Blumberg. “We have the luxury of being able to turn to 180 members as well as people outside of the association – so we have a tremendous depth of knowledge to call upon.”
While selling for a profit is an appealing aspect of collecting, Waxter says it is important to recognise that you are making a long term investment, and that the collecting process is about more than just financial gain.
“Right now, if you go into a gallery and buy a work of art, you can’t expect to sell it for a profit six months later. This is not why dealers are in business,” she says.
“Dealers are in business to promote culture and a response to something that you think is life enhancing – it’s an important part of all of our lives and of society as a whole. Art enriches us in ways that have much more to do with our inner workings than just the marketplace and making the bucks.”
“I think artists are in the forefront of a real dialogue, a real cultural discourse, and the most pleasure can often come from participating in and being part of that discourse,” adds Blumberg. “You can do that as a curator, and as a director, but you can also do it by collecting.”