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. But 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.

2 Comments

  1. At the Fall Open Studios a painting was purchased after taking it outdoors and considering it for a while. To some extent the crowd of visitors creates pressure to decide. A week later the wife contacted me in obvious embarrassment and distress, with the reason that they could not find a place with enough light to show the subtleties of its darker colors. (My husband’s input was that her husband wasn’t as sold on the piece to begin with.). Despite my immediate refund and assurances that it was appropriate and no trouble, I feel that the circumstances on their side were sufficiently painful that I will never hear from them again. Meanwhile I had lost the opportunity to show it to later visitors during the event. I’m thinking of how often someone wants to check with their spouse before buying something they say they are in love with, and is never seen again. Preferable, probably.

  2. Hi Jason,
    All great information and the positive buying experience, even if the work is rejected in the end, is an important part of the ultimate goal for those who are passionate about the works they choose. If the piece is not right, it’s not right. But the overall experience should still be positive.
    However, there can always be a cost factor in shipping. This was a sizable piece so properly packed and handled in shipment can cost hundreds of dollars one way.
    In this case the artists shipped to Xanadu and you were able to hand deliver, so some costs were avoided. Not always the case though.
    How do you approach covering shipping costs on rejected work with the client and artist, or do you absorb the loss as part of the gallery’s position in the sales process and overall relationship with the client?

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