Like an artist's work? Pay up, and then take a number

What does it cost to purchase one of Toba Khedoori's large-scale drawings?

Well, there is the price of the actual piece, of course, which is usually in the $100,000 range.

Then - because this award-winning West Coast artist is so sought-after, and produces so few drawings (five in the past two years) - prospective buyers must get on a waiting list for new work with her New York dealer, David Zwirner.

That's where the real costs begin.

A gallery's waiting list is no first-come, first-served, restaurant-type arrangement. Getting on the list requires collectors to demonstrate a "commitment" to the dealer's gallery in the form of consistent, long-term buying.

"I try to favor our regular clients, particularly those who buy across-the-board, not just one or two artists in the gallery," Mr. Zwirner says.

Better have your checkbook handy. Working one's way onto a dealer's waiting list is a point of prestige ("I'm on a list!") and anxiety ("What number on the list am I?") for collectors of hot artists.

Galleries use these lists to brush off the merely curious and reward their freest-spending customers.

John Szoke, a New York publisher and dealer in fine-art graphic prints, also says that those on the top of his waiting lists are buyers "who support our entire program" - that is, have bought prints by other artists he has published.

Moving in a slightly different direction, the Barry Whistler Gallery in Dallas asks collectors interested in new work by Ann Stautberg, a Houston artist who hand- colors her black-and-white photographs in editions of nine, to put down a deposit.

If buyers are eager to get on a list and inch their way to the top, they are often quite worried about turning down an available piece when it is offered to them for fear of losing their ranking.

Mr. Szoke notes that a customer's approach in that situation "affects your general attitude about the collector."

Zwirner goes so far as to describe "a person who doesn't buy when called" as a "problem."

"Obviously, you can't offer the collector a choice. This is what I have available," he says. "However, I'll probably drop the person down the list [if they don't buy]. After all, I made the effort to make the work available."

Galleries also rachet up the pressure on would-be buyers by limiting the time in which they can make a decision to a day or so.

With the photographic images of Cindy Sherman, produced in editions of just six, the artist's gallery, Metro Pictures, in New York, will "need to know that day," says Allison Card, a gallery spokeswoman.

Pace Prints, a graphic-art publisher and gallery in Manhattan, may hold the work for a few days, says gallery director Kristen Heming. The Washington, D.C., gallery Addison/Ripley sometimes stretches out the decisionmaking time to one week.

But the hotter the artist and the more limited the supply, the less time is available to collectors. "Being on a waiting list makes collectors realize there are other people waiting, too," says Santa Fe, N.M., gallery owner Charlotte Jackson, and that they had "better act fast."

As a result, some collectors take proferred artworks sight unseen. Others buy after a quick visit to the gallery, a glance at an e-mailed image of the piece, or even just hearing a description over the phone.

For example, about 10 percent of the wait-listed collectors of Pace Prints and Gemini G.E.L., a West Coast fine-art publisher, make purchases without looking at what they're buying.

"Some people collect in such an aggressive way, they can afford to make mistakes," San Francisco gallery owner John Berggruen says.

Certainly, not every gallery that employs waiting lists pressures collectors to buy right away or punishes customers who turn down an offered work.

The work may be the wrong size or simply not appeal when it appears on the collector's doorstep, or a collector's financial situation may have changed.

At times, galleries will arrange for collectors to commission artists to create specific pieces, generating more give-and-take for both artist and buyer and making it more likely that the collector will like the finished product. "We're not talking about a suit off the rack," says Dennis Christie, director of New York's Charles Cowles Gallery. "This is art. You don't want people buying things they don't like."

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