Regulate the Art Market? Don’t Even Think About It

In any event, I don’t believe in the notion that auction houses control the market. As a client, if I don’t like what they offer, I can go to one of hundreds of dealers around the world. Today, neither house charges their large clients seller commissions, and buyers’ commissions are the same at Christie’s and Sotheby’s and, for that matter, Phillips: 25% up to $50,000, 20% up to $1 million and 12% thereafter. So, what did the government achieve by prosecuting these people, and wreaking havoc in their lives? Nothing.

Funny that I have never heard a single dealer point out how unfair it was that one house was busted while the other was allowed to get off for turning in state’s evidence. But sadly I often hear one dealer backstab another about taking double commissions, when in fact they all take what they can get every day in what, despite the government’s interpretation, is an extremely competitive business. I have always given any dealer I sell through a simple net price; if they were able to sell a work for that price, I thanked them very much. They are all working on my behalf to find a client, and if they need to split the commission to get the deal done, so be it. What do I care how many people they involve?

I also take issue with collectors who mistrust their dealers, a popular and ugly recent trend. These collectors hire lawyers and create copious documentation; they only sell on consignment (no net price) and then they meticulously check every receipt, invoice and wire transfer. I’ve seen some of them sue dealers for works they didn’t get or commissions they think they’re owed. Forget right or wrong: art is a handshake business, and if someone treats you poorly, don’t deal with them again, but don’t go public with your gripes: it’s bad form, and will result in bad karma. As a collector, you are the buyer, but you’re also a patron and a caretaker — you don’t want to look like a personal injury litigant.

The art world may be old fashioned in this regard, but I don’t think there’s any good way to change it. And that’s fine. As it is, I deal only with the people I trust at galleries and auction houses; regulation wouldn’t alter that. And the only thing to regulate is precisely what could never be regulated: information. The art market runs on it. There are those who know, and those who don’t, and that’s why it’s important to have friends. There’s neither a need nor a use for regulation; anyone you’ve heard pontificating on the subject is an outsider looking to bring on an auto da fe. The real experts work on knowledge, feel and trust. If you’re not feeling it, don’t participate.

editorial@observer.com