Is It Okay to Haggle with an Art Gallery?

By July 20, 2015
Monty Hall was the host of the original TV show Let's Make a Deal.
Monty Hall was the host of the original TV show Let’s Make a Deal.

There’s a painting that I’d like to purchase from a smaller gallery here in town, but it’s out of my budget. Not by much, but in order to buy it, the price needs to come down. Can I try to negotiate with the gallery? I come from the business-side of things, so that’s a normal practice for my realm, but I don’t want to anger anyone, or seem rude. I like the owners of the gallery very much. Please advise.
Hesitant Haggler

Dear Hesitant Haggler,
Prices, prices, prices! Well first, I’m happy to know you’re going to galleries and supporting them with your potential dollars — even thinking about buying artwork is a good thing for all those involved in the arts. We need people like you!
So, now you’ve got your eye on a piece, but it’s out of your league, financially speaking. You want to know whether or not you’ll seem boarish if you strut in there and offer something less than the ticket price.
Negotiating is a curious thing; and happens to be one of those skills at which a lot of people are horrible. For instance, me. If I try to negotiate with a shopkeeper of any sort, it often ends up looking like that haggling scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian — where Brian and the beard merchant spout off seemingly random numbers at each other until the confusion and anxiety of the situation erupts into dreadful absurdity. 

Thus, I find it extremely intriguing when people are good at it, which I’m going to assume you are. It’s clearly a skill that’s lurking somewhere in your wheelhouse, and you know how to use it.
Ultimately, my advice on negotiating with a gallery is, yes, try it! The gallery is there to sell artwork and, at the end of the day, they’d rather be faced with an offer than no offers at all. Whether they take your offer or not is up to them, but at least they can make that choice themselves.
However, there are some caveats and gallery-world facts that might help you as you enter the numbers ring, so let’s discuss!

First, you should understand what galleries are actually making off the artwork they sell. I can’t speak for all galleries — the one you’re buying from may be different — but most commercial galleries have a general structure that splits the proceeds 50/50 with the artists. So if a piece is priced at $1,000, the gallery gets $500 of that, the artist gets $500. Out of that $500, the gallery is paying its employees, rent, bills, promotion and advertising fees, printing costs (mailing cards, labels, vinyl lettering, and price lists for each exhibition), as well as miscellaneous expenses like umpteen boxes of wine for openings and events. That split portion is what funds everything. Many galleries have no other source of revenue besides half of the price of artwork sale.

So, if you try to ask for half off, I can guarantee right now, you’re not going to get it. Not even 40 percent or 30 percent, probably. It’s just not feasible for the gallery to do that if they are going to stay afloat. So I’d say, if you’re buying something big, the best you can do is negotiate a 10 or 5 percent discount — which on some pieces can be a serious chunk of change.
Many good-hearted galleries will not take the discount out of the artist’s portion, so it is likely all coming out of the gallery’s potential profit.

Galleries ultimately want to make the sell; they want you to buy something. And maybe more in the future. So negotiating is good for them. But understand that they truly cannot give discounts like a flea market. They didn’t buy the art for dirt cheap and there are a lot of mouths to feed on each sale, so to speak.

Now that you have a better sense of distribution, I hope you understand why the prices often appear high. Not to mention, in most galleries in our region, artwork isn’t exactly flying off the racks. Many galleries do well, but people aren’t lining up to buy work on a daily basis. It’s a lot of work on the gallery’s end; each sale is very important and some buyers can take a lot of time to actually commit to a purchase (months, years).

So, if the 5-to-10-percent discount puts the artwork in your budget — meaning you wouldn’t buy it otherwise — absolutely, try to haggle. However, if you’re looking for a seriously deep markdown, I’d recommend trying to find another work by that artist that’s within your price range, or just keep saving up for the piece you really want.

Got a question for Sara? Send an email to [email protected].

Sara Estes lives in Nashville and is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She cofounded and curates the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space, Threesquared

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