How to Spot a Bad Art Dealer

by Tang Content Strategist Brigid Duffy

While the majority of players within the art world are reputable, responsible, and considerate of everyone with whom they do business, there are (as in every profession) a handful of those who are disreputable. Unfortunately, because of the mercurial nature of the art business, these individuals can be difficult to spot as a new artist or collector. Knowing how to identify and avoid a “dealer from hell,” can make all of the difference as you navigate the buying, selling, or managing process. What follows is a list of behaviors to watch for and hopefully avoid, regardless of whether you are a collector or art manager.

1. Bad art dealers want a cut of everything-- past, present and future-- even transactions taking place within previously established relationships, and will often refuse to negotiate. If they have this attitude with you, they likely have it with other dealers and collectors as well.

2. They give evasive answers to matter-of-fact questions about gallery policies, about who covers shipping, whether they're insured against loss or damage, how and when artists get paid, whether they've sold any of an artist's work, how much they're selling the art for, where an artist's unsold works of art are being kept, and so on. Always ask for specifics!

3. They don't tell their clients in a timely manner when art sells, but instead wait until the artist or seller asks and even then, they'll still try to put off telling them for as long as possible. Always make sure you have complete written records of all consigned artworks and that both parties sign off on every single sale or transfer.

4. A dishonest dealer will secretly raise prices beyond the amounts agreed upon with their artist, then pocket the extra profits for themselves. Conversely, they may also sell an artist’s piece for below the agreed upon price without telling the artist, or prior to being given consent, and then simply pay the artist less.

5. They don't know how to handle art or they handle it carelessly. How a gallery handles art is not only a key indicator of their experience in the business, but even more importantly, of their respect for art and artists in general. “Bad” dealers from hell have a history of returning unsold art to artists in worse condition than they received it, and will say nothing about it.

6. Unpleasant dealers have a history of getting involved in legal actions-- from either side-- either them going legal on their artists or their artists going legal on them. Or they regularly threaten legal action or talk about what they'll do to anyone who doesn't go along with their program. Litigation is expensive, time consuming, and hardly ever pleasant. These are not people you want to do business with.