One of the major salesrooms has, in short order, announced it will close half its retail sales operation and increase its premium rates. Since the salesroom is privately owned, the why of this must be shrouded in mystery, but a reasonable speculation is that they’ve found becoming art market retailers an expensive proposition.
As, of course, it is. Any member of the accredited trade in any of the better venues in any art market city will tell anyone who asks, that this is and always has been a costly business. Rent, of course, staffing, keeping the lights on and the galleries up to the mark- and this says nothing of the cost of acquiring and maintaining one’s stock in trade. This is, after all, one of the luxury trades and that cannot be pursued on the cheap.
That a salesroom would choose to pursue this is understandable, given the disarray in the wider trade the last couple of years with the global economic downturn. One would assume the gap left in the retail art market with the departure of a number of well known galleries would open up the field. Well, possibly, but the fact of the matter is, now matter how well capitalized a salesroom is and how long length of purse can support a retail trading floor, what cannot be substituted now or ever is the service and expertise a retail gallery will always be able to provide. What early on struck us in this business was how high touch it was, with gallery patrons always spending a goodish amount of time with us, and lots of palaver and bonding occurring before the first purchase was made. Note that I said the first purchase, as, not a surprising corollary, this is also overwhelmingly a relationship business. Our clients may make one purchase at a time, but they seldom make only one- spot sales for us are unusual. The client likes our stock, likes us as gallery owners, and, when looked back over the years, a retail gallery and ours is no exception, finds it has a cadre of clients who, though not buying all the time, when they do buy, go see us first.
Well, of course the why of the bonding between client and retail dealer is not too surprising. Most purchases are destined for someone’s home, so there is, consequently, an intimacy established that, even at some remove, the client is at least symbolically inviting the gallery owner into their home. As is literally the case, too, as our sales typically involve a housecall to see the piece is received in good condition and likewise installed, and rarely does this not involve the client. Always eager are they to display their own collection, and to discuss it with someone they consider in a position to appreciate it.
It would be surprising to me to find that a salesroom would ever provide the same level of service or establish the same level of intimacy as the better retail gallery. As part of what we do, we undertake restoration projects for good clients, but I am ashamed to say, turn away projects from others with a degree of not always fully concealed glee when we find what they need done up is an auction purchase. ‘As is, where is’ is a pretty basic trading condition for salesrooms, and I suspect that that may be the limit of personal service, as well.