The First Question Every Art Buyer Should Ask a Dealer

Traditionally the first question many people interested in purchasing a painting will put to a dealer is of course; ‘How much is it?’ A great many, perhaps uneasy in a gallery environment and worried about appearing naïf may throw in a few warm-up questions such as ‘What is the provenance of this painting?’ or ‘Can I see the back of the canvas, please?’ These are all perfectly valid and important questions which any proper dealer will be ready and willing to answer but they are not in my opinion the first question to ask.

Before buying a work of art from a gallery or professional art dealer I recommend clients ask one question; “What do you collect?” At both the ‘low’ and the ‘high’ end of the art market it is common to see dealers dancing about in front of clients attempting to impress upon them the great importance of a particular painting or artist but I can assure you that to a great many only one thing is of importance and that is money. It is my experience that most art dealers have a limited interest in art history, know little about artists’ techniques and materials, and virtually nothing about conservation.

Naturally, as a professional art dealer – unless you were fortunate enough to have been born into money, as many at the top end of the market were – you are of course in business and need to make a profit. However, a good art dealer will always become more excited talking about the paintings they sell than about the profits they make from selling them, and a sure sign that an art dealer’s passion is profit rather than paintings is their disinterest in collecting and the lack of a personal collection. And before you ask, I collect precisely the sort of paintings I sell; 19th century British oils and watercolours and some early 20th century Post-Impressionism.

These days many of us have become used to buying from ill-informed sellers who know no more about the items they are selling than we do ourselves. That is frustrating enough when you are in B&Q but no-one should settle for such a situation when buying a fine painting.