How to Handle an Art Sale that Doesn’t Work Out

The page from our Art Catalogue advertising the piece.
The page from our Art Catalogue advertising the piece.

above: the artwork hanging in the client’s home

I recently had a client call to ask if she and her husband could see one of the pieces featured in Xanadu Gallery’s Art Catalogue in their home. They loved the composition of the piece and felt it would be a great fit above their fireplace. The client has purchased a number of works from Xanadu over the years (including a good number from the Catalogue), and so I didn’t hesitate to contact the artist to have her ship the piece from her studio in Texas to the gallery so that I could show it to the clients.

Between the summer travel schedule of the artist, myself and the client, it took several weeks to line everything up, but last week I was able to take the piece to the client’s home and hang it above the fireplace. Only the wife was home at the time I delivered the art, and she asked if I could leave the piece overnight for her husband to see. She would call me the next morning with a credit card if they both felt it was the perfect piece for the space.

Early the next morning I received an email telling me that, unfortunately, her husband didn’t feel the piece spoke to him the way he had hoped it would. He liked the painting very much, but it just didn’t feel right to him for the space, and after discussing it, they didn’t feel they had any other space that would do it justice.

I’m sure many of you have run into a similar circumstance. My reaction is to quickly try and think if there is any reasonable thing I might do to save the sale – to resolve concerns the client has or help them see the work in a new way that will make it work. Having worked extensively with these clients in the past, however, I knew that this wasn’t the case. I knew from experience that once they made up their minds, there was no changing them.

I made arrangements to return to their home and pick up the piece. When I arrived I had a brief conversation with the wife. I could tell that she was a little nervous that they had inconvenienced me in some way by having had the artwork shipped over and having had me deliver it to their home. I reassured her that this was not the case, and let her know that we would keep an eye out for the perfect piece for the space. She’s one of the most avid followers of our Catalogue and website, so I’m confident that we will find the right piece for the space that both she and her husband will love for many years to come.

This experience got me thinking about all of the possible ways one might react to an unsuccessful sales attempt, and I wanted to share some guidelines I’ve tried to follow when a sale falls through.

  1. I don’t take the rejection of a piece of art personally. This is probably easier for me as a gallery owner than it is for you, since it is inherently more personal when someone decides not to buy your art. I would urge you not to take it personally if a client decides against purchasing one of your works. In many cases, the circumstances will be similar to my experience – it’s not that the client doesn’t like the art or is calling into question your talent, they simply don’t end up feeling as passionate about the art as they initially expected to. My client was careful to assure me that both she and her husband liked the painting (they wanted me to pass this on to the artist), but somehow it just didn’t seem to work with the other art in the room, and with the architecture, the way they had thought it might.
  2. I carefully ask if there was anything specific that they didn’t like about the piece. In this case, my clients couldn’t identify strong specific factors, but in the past, asking this question has helped me find a piece that did end up working for the clients. Often clients have a difficult time predicting how a piece will look in their home. Even if a particular piece doesn’t work, it can help me better understand what they want or don’t want in their space.
  3. I put a lot of effort into putting my clients at ease about any inconvenience I went through to show them the piece. As I mentioned, my client was sorry for any inconvenience she had caused me in getting the piece to her. You’ll often run into this with customers who decide not to purchase a piece that you’ve delivered to their home, or for whom you’ve made other special arrangements. I go out of my way to set their minds at ease. I truly don’t mind making effort to get artwork to a client for review because I know that the vast majority of the time when I get artwork into a client’s home, it’s going to sell. I would far prefer to deliver and hang the artwork and not have it sell on occasion, than to never have the opportunity to show clients artwork in their home in the first place because they are afraid of inconveniencing me. When I picked up this piece, I said “you have been such great clients – you can do no wrong in my eyes! I’m sure we’ll find just the right piece for you!” I felt that my enthusiasm and effort to reassure her that I wasn’t at all bothered by the effort to get the piece to her dramatically improved my chances for helping them find the right piece in the future. The last thing I would ever want is for a client to feel that I’m irritated in some way.
  4. I never, ever exert pressure to get someone to buy something they don’t love. This is a tricky question, because sometimes a sale will require extra effort on my part to help reassure a client that a piece actually does work in their space and that they should buy it. Some clients find it difficult to commit to a piece of art, especially in an important space in their home. I feel it’s my job in those instances to help the client work through his uncertainties and allow himself to buy the piece. I’ve had many clients later thank me for helping them buy a piece that they were at first unsure of, but later came to absolutely love. I suppose the art of salesmanship is knowing the difference between uncertainty and dissatisfaction with a piece. I knew the case of this recent deliver that there was no room to persuade or negotiate to try to make the sale. My clients were certain in their decision. When there’s certainty, the last thing I would want is for my client’s to feel I was trying to pressure them into buying something they don’t want. I’m looking at my long-term relationship with the client as the priority, and I would never jeopardize that relationship to try and force a sale.

Ultimately, I want my clients to buy art because they feel a powerful, emotional connection to the work. I want them to be happy with the work they’ve purchased from me forever. Keeping that in mind helps me know that any sales that don’t work out are just short-term setbacks.

I let the artist who had created the piece know that the sale hadn’t, unfortunately, gone through. I could tell right away that the artist also had the right attitude about sales. In her email response she said, “Thank you again for this opportunity. It would not have happened without your support in the first place.” What a great attitude! And of course, it’s also important to remember that her painting will find a home with someone who absolutely loves it.

What do you Think?

How have you handled sales that didn’t work out? Have you had experiences that went well? Have you had experiences the went poorly? What suggestions do you have for artists or galleries that run into a sale that doesn’t work out? Share what you’ve learned about handling sales that don’t work out in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

41 Comments

  1. I do not get too upset about a piece not working for a certain person. I get such joy in making my pieces, they are personal to me, and I wouldn’t expect everybody else to get them. On the flip side, every time I see someone who has one of my pieces, they wax poetic about it. Last night, I saw a woman who commissioned a series of the same scene, one for each season. They change them out on equinox and solstices. They’ve had them for a good 5 years and even now love them. She has been joyfully introducing my work to other potential clients for all of that time.

  2. Nicely Done Jason.

    And thanks for sharing your ‘failures’ as well as your successes!
    It is always a difficult conversation to negotiate, especially as the artist receiving the rejection. I, too, do everything in my power to withhold any disappointment and encourage the buyers to enjoy the process of finding that perfect piece. Ultimately that reinforcement makes them trust me more and enjoy their pursuit of art.
    The one addition I have made is to offer to ‘create a piece just for you’ and perhaps turn a failed sale into a successful commission. But alas, we all die small deaths, the loss of a sale is just one of them.

  3. It was so ironic. Just prior to opening and reading your article, I had received and responded to an email from a client who, after several weeks of trying to make a decision about one of my paintings, had decided it just didn’t work in her newly designed room. I too had let her know that was fine. I want purchasers to love my work in their home. If it doesn’t work, no problem! She has several other pieces of my work, and I know eventually another piece will work and she will feel comfortable “trying on” a piece until the right one comes along. Thanks for a timely article.

  4. I’m curious about who paid for the shipping. What is appropriate in these kind of circumstances.
    I agree with the idea that I want my collectors to be happy and love the art they purchase.
    If it’s a good piece it will find the right home.

  5. Excellent topic. I would love to have a deeper dive into this topic regarding customer service from both the gallery and the artist. Who would be responsible for the shipping costs in an event like this?

    1. I will dive deeper on this, but to answer your question, in this scenario I paid for all of the shipping and packaging. I’m more than willing to do this as an investment in my future relationship with the customer and the artist. This can vary a bit. If the client seems wishy-washy about the purchase, I will offer to pay for the shipping to get the artwork to their home, but ask that they agree to ship it back. This puts a bit of their skin in the game.

      1. Perfect answer! I’ve been holding my breath through all the comments waiting to see if I’d be forced to ask the question. As a past gallery manager I had a similar experience and worked it out in similar fashion. As an artist I was eager to know how you cared for your artists relations too! Again, perfect answer. I really love this blog and all the great topics you identify.

        I wanted to respond to this topic also but living in a tourist primary city, deep South, as a minority artist–I didn’t feel I should take up 3 pages of anyone’s time. But I will remark that I’ve learned to join the local hustle–non-traditional galleries, indoor markets, an online presence, trunk shows, special event galas and online sales through those galleries. It’s a hot mess unstable system but the fluctuations force greater creativity. Things have gotten better, inch by inch, every year. Thanks for all you do!!! http://www.silkrivermetals.com

  6. Packing and shipping can be expensive, especially with large crated pieces. This brings up the question of proper packing and shipping. I have sold a few pieces on saatchi and the rule is customers pay for shipping and the artist pays for packing, is that how you handled it? The saatchi requirements for packing are quite stringent, layers of glassine paper, three layers of bubble wrap, plastic wrapping on top etc. etc. Any thoughts or guidelines for “packing”. Fedex has a standard 44″ x 32″ x 2″ ready made box for framed canvas. If I can constraint my desire for bigger.

    1. I use the brown acid free shipping paper (much cheaper) wrap it in bubble wrap, then place it in a box. I wrap that box in bubble wrap, then placed in the shipping box. My panels are more fragile than canvas and I haven’t had a problem. I have yet shipped anything over 48″ though. I figure if something can puncture through 2 layers of cardboard, really nothing was going to stop it from getting damaged.

  7. It’s easy to ignore rejection when someone is just looking, but always a little harder when there was hope for a sale. Either way, you have to have a great attitude in hopes they will be interested in a future piece.

  8. My story relates to this article, and the one on Dressing for Success. A client of the gallery that represents me here in my home town has purchased several of my paintings in the past, and had expressed interest , over many months, in a larger work of mine, but never committed. Finally, after nearly a year, they purchased a different one that they love. Not the end of story though: I randomly had to stop in to the gallery briefly to drop off a piece. I was in athletic clothes (fortunately new and “matching”) and had the presence of mind to bring an additional clean jacket to put on top of my clothes, after my game. After all, I was just ducking in. But the gallery owner said,”I want you to meet “x”, as this particular client was there in the gallery. We exclaimed over each other finally meeting, she praised my work, hugged me and I left, a bit sheepish that I was not in “success dress” but at least I had on pearl earrings!! And this town is full of people in athletic clothes at all times, so being “sporty” isn’t unusual. But I will definitely pay more attention in the future. By the way, it was my first rock star meeting (the client is a rock star, now and from the 70’s.)

  9. Jason — this raises questions for me. How long do you give q buyer to try out a piece of art? Do they pay for a piece left in their home to try? And, if someone purchases a piece and takes it home, how long after that purchase would you gracefully accept a “change of mind” return?

    1. All great questions Helen. I just closed a big sale this morning where we had taken 10 paintings out on Tuesday and then let the clients live with them until today (Friday). I try to be accommodating with clients who need to see the work in their spaces while making the decision. At the same time you don’t want to allow too much time. As a rule 3-5 days would be the outside, and I prefer 1-2. I take a credit card number to hold the work, but I don’t run the charge until the sale is certain. We typically have a 14 day period for returns, but it rarely ever comes up. Truthfully, I don’t think of any of this as “Xanadu Gallery Policy” that we have to rigidly stick to. If I feel there are compelling reasons to bend any of these guidelines to make a client happy in unusual circumstances, I will.

  10. Being an artist is a long term business, people might see our work when they are 20 year-old and broke and purchase something when they are 40. By just being out there and being our kind genuine selves, no matter if we sell or not, we are always preparing the terrain for potential sales. It is so magical to see that special moment when the connection is made between the artwork and the client; I truly believe that each piece is waiting for its specific home and I never worry if a sale doesn’t go through.

  11. I know we often react to a work quickly … we either like it or we don’t. Sometimes it grows on you. I couldn’t help but note their decision was made in less than 24 hrs. The husband probably saw it in evening light and had a negative reaction. Morning light didn’t change his mind.
    I think in this scenario I would have encouraged the couple to keep the piece a minimum of 2-3 days when I left it. Give them ample evaluation time because he may have had a stressful business trip. It is terribly difficult to make a sale with just half a joint decision maker.
    I’ve left a piece on approval before that was declined. This was a sincere appeal on my part to them … I asked this couple to critique the painting. They were refreshingly objective and I had to agree, they were right. 🙂 No, they didn’t buy that one but they did another one a few months later.
    Attitude is everything. No one likes to work with a cranky artist.

  12. Very good advice in this. I have not had a customer who brought a piece into their home decide against purchasing it, but I have had people decide it just isn’t right for them. I make metal sculptures and most people really enjoy them. One man seemed very excited about a piece until he found out it would not hold wine bottles. Needless to say, I did not get the sale.

  13. Great article and good advice, Jason. I had young couple visit my booth at the “Art on the Levee” show in Ft. Benton, MT and they loved one of my paintings, but couldn’t decide to make the purchase. I also didn’t want to push them. They said they might return later in the day. Within minutes the former mayor and his wife dropped in a bought the painting. When the first couple returned they were disappointed to miss out on it. My daughter, sales associate extraordinaire, told them I could paint them a similar one. They jumped on the idea and began asking if I could change this and that to thier liking. I was so excited to get a commission I agreed to paint on a makeshift table next to my booth… in 100 degree plus weather. This first painting took several days to complete and I had to finish this one overnight. The clients returned the next day just as I was signing it. Luckily it was done in acrylics and was dry by the time they paid for it. They were so happy and excited that we were almost in tears. I was so glad to have my painting appreciated I gave them a discount.

  14. I feel that my job as a gallery owner is to create a connection between the art and the client. I never force this. Buyer’s remorse is the worst advertising. I truly feel that a customer must be completely connected with a piece emotionally and have it bring them joy every day! I love when people will come back to me 10 years later and tell me that they are still loving the painting, etc… that they bought from us. It does lead to repeated sales from these clients as well and builds a strong, trusting relationship.

  15. I have a client that was interested in several pieces of my art. They came from Denver to my home in Fort Collins and selected five or six pieces. My husband and I delivered and hung all of the paintings with the understanding that they could live with them for a week or so to make sure that they were happy with them all. They loved them all but felt that one large painting didn’t work in a particular space. They loved it but because of the size they were limited on other options of where to hang it. I picked up the painting and because I spent time in their home I was able to get a commissioned piece for another area of their home. I feel like it always works out for the best as a few months later the piece that they rejected sold to another customer.

  16. I think the most important ‘take away’ from your experience is to make sure the clients feel at ease about their decision. If they feel uncomfortable in any way they might be reluctant to ask to see something again in the future. Since they are repeat customers that would really be a loss to future business. Thanks as always for sharing.

  17. These are good to read. I can think of two occasions within the last year where a spouse has been in my studio during a show here in Minneapolis and very interested in a piece. (if it had been just up to them there probably would have been a sale). They return sometime later that day or week with their significant other who feels it may not entirely fit with the vision they have for their space. I had not thought to ask if something more custom would work since I feel I have so much to choose from. I mean, what other possible combination is there right!? I don’t know if this offer would be successful in my case however in the future it will be something I will consider mentioning.

  18. I learned a long time ago how differently different people react to a piece of artwork I have done. Recently I did experience a rejection. A young man had dropped into my studio and asked if he could look at some older canvases that he had admired several years ago in another venue. He was delighted I still owned the work and asked if he could take it home as a birthday present for his wife. He was very uncomfortable when he returned it as I tried to reassure him I did understand. His wife really disliked it…. I chuckle when I think about it… I suggested perhaps in the future they would both be delighted with another painting. Just the other day he asked if he could connect on LinkedIn. All is well.

  19. So timely. I just had a client who wanted me to do paintings for three different walls in her house. Her husband and she had different taste. I went back and forth to her house three times In the end they bought two 30 by40 in paintings for one wall. So I am happy it was a great experience and I didnt take it personally but I will be more choosey about taking commissions. This is the first that didnt.totally work out.

  20. Great topic, as usual. I always learn a little more from each of your posts.
    Btw – I just uploaded a piece called “Cloud Chaser” that might look very nice in that clients space. 🙂
    Cheers.

  21. Wonderfully handled, Jason. Coincides with a great book I am reading “The Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity” (August Turak) which is all about serving , which is what you did. Blessings to you.

  22. Mahalo from Hawaii for another great article! I have a small gallery in Waikiki and sell my own work as well as others local artists’. I’m grateful that my work moves many people, but on a daily basis I deal with customers that may like another artist’s work over mine. More often than not when they find out that the other work is mine, I feel that they’re uncomfortable and I have to reassure them that they don’t have to feel guilty that they didn’t “pick me”. Many years ago I decided that in part, people are energetically drawn to a certain piece. I strive to paint pictures that move someone or evoke a strong emotional response and understand that every person’s response will be different based on their life experiences.

  23. Dear Jason,
    The longer you paint and sell, of course, this happens. Years ago, I had a gallery representing me in Houston (before he retired) and there was a gallery client very interested in a large painting – 54 x 73 ins on panel, therefore heavy. We arranged to share the cost of the transport. He delivered the painting to their home and hung it. He had a bad feeling when he saw dozens of paintings on the wall of “a different quality” – not from his gallery. That sale fell through, but there was another client interested who tried to push the retail price down below a point that I could not accept. Eventually, the gallery shipped the painting back to New York and he graciously carried the cost. He was one of the fairest gallery owners I have dealt with in over 40 years of exhibiting. We both lost money, but he said he should have done more homework on the clients before I shipped the work!

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