New York Times: What to Do When a Once-Beloved Art Piece Has Lost Its Luster

LONDON — Several years ago, Bari Shaffran and her husband were meandering around Frieze London when they came across the booth of Berlin-based gallery Eigen + Art.

While not avid collectors, the couple had purchased works at art fairs before. One of the gallerists introduced them to Birgit Brenner, an artist featured in their show. The couple bought three of Ms. Brenner’s pieces.

Initially, they were excited, but over time the works no longer fit into their collecting aesthetic. Unsure how to proceed, Ms. Shaffran reached out to the gallery two years ago, asking if it wanted to buy the works back.

But she never heard back, and wondered if it was best to hold onto them in case their value increased, or to try and sell them on the secondary market. When contacted for comment, the gallery said in a statement that the “resale market is not in the foreground of our business.”

“I imagine it’s analogous to a bad marriage,” joked Ms. Shaffran, “in that you want to get out of it but you feel trapped and don’t know how.”

Like a marriage, or any other investment, buying art can be a gamble. “Every art piece that you buy, you take on the risk,” said Cleo Roberts-Komireddi, an art historian.

An artist whose work may initially be highly valued on primary markets like fairs and galleries may not hold that worth in secondary markets like auctions and private sales. In that case, there may be little chance to sell the piece for a profit, or even to recoup the original investment.

“If you’re like, ‘Oh, I bought this work from a gallery, someday I can sell it for more’ there is today a 98 to 99 percent chance, with a randomly selected work of art from a gallery, that its residual value is zero, because there’s not been a secondary market created,” said Mike Steib, the chief executive of Artsy, an online art selling and buying platform.

He added that even if there is demand for the artist’s work on the primary market, often there is no demand for a piece once it has been sold to a collector. “It’s the exact same painting: if it comes out of the gallery, it gets sold but once it goes from the gallery to the person, the person can’t sell it because the secondary market doesn’t accept it.”

So, what do people do who are in situations like Ms. Shaffran’s? The first move is — as she did — to go back to the gallery.

“It’s the polite, diplomatic thing to do,” said Dr. Roberts-Komireddi. “Any good gallery will also want to control what seeps onto the auction market, so they would prefer to do things on the secondary market behind closed doors.” She added that many “blue chip” galleries make a lot of their money on the secondary market.

“We are happy to help facilitate arrangements to sell or re-buy the work,” Alex Logsdail, the chief executive of the London-based Lisson Gallery, which participates in the world’s top art fairs, including Frieze London, wrote in an email. He added that donating the work to an institution is another option, one that could often qualify the seller for a charitable deduction.

Kristin Hjellegjerde, whose galleries are in London, Berlin and Norway, said she sometimes buys back works and resells them. “I tell clients ‘Can you wait, hold on a little bit,’” she said, adding that sometimes an artist may have a big exhibition or museum show coming up. “Then it’s easier for us to do a resale.”

If a gallery does not respond or is not interested, another idea is to reach out to the artist, Dr. Roberts-Komireddi said, as they are sometimes quite interested in their old pieces and may be keen to rework them or simply have them back for nostalgia. But Ms. Shaffran did not, saying she assumed she had to go through the gallery.

“You don’t have to be a multimillionaire to talk to an art adviser,” said Claire McCaslin-Brown, a London-based art consultant. “It’s worth getting a bit of independent advice to start with.”

Auction houses, which also do private sales, are another option.

“People are not bound to give the work to us, but we can give useful information in terms of the secondary markets,” said Olivia Thornton, the head of 20th-century and contemporary art at the international auction house Phillips. “If the auction estimate is going to leave them with a bit of a gap between what they need and where we see it on the secondary market, we can always try and sell the work privately. We do that all the time.”

If an artist has a bigger following in their home country than abroad, local or niche auction houses might be a better option.

“If you put a piece by a Polish artist on the Polish auction market, you will have success,” said Marta Kolakowska, who runs the Warsaw-based Leto Gallery and recently co-organized the Hotel Warszawa Art Fair, which highlighted Polish galleries.

But according to Mr. Steib, a major risk with auction houses is that if the piece did not sell, “anyone who looks at that painting again in the future knows it’s a painting that was not desired by the market.”

Online auction sites like Artsy take a different approach: If a piece does not sell, it is not public knowledge and remains available on the site through private sales channels or e-commerce, depending on what the consignor chooses to do.
“Because of the way we look at the world,” Mr. Steib said, “we just haven’t sold it yet.”

And if it all else fails, said Ms. McCaslin-Brown, hang on to it. Which is what Ms. Shaffran finally decided.

“Just put it in the cellar or a cupboard and in a couple of years’ time,” Ms. McCaslin-Brown said, “you may fall in love with the piece all over again.”

Photo credit: Credit…Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images