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.

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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 ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

50 Comments

  1. I think you are an expert at salesmanship Jason! As an artist with an artistic temperament, I could not possibly have dealt with that situation the way you did so I just want to say ‘hats off to you Jason’

  2. Did you require them to at least cover shipping? Possibly a house call fee if you informed them upfront.? Time is money and most people will understand that. An attorney won’t even give advice without a retainer. If you make an appointment with a Doctor and don’t show up, you will still have to pay for the office visit in most cases.

      1. I guess it would depend on the cost of shipping. Packaging, insuring and shipping a large canvas, or other heavy support across the country could be in in access of $200, and probably a lot more, to say nothing if they don’t want to pay for its return. Not many artists I know would be willing to accept that sort of loss revenue. I think you should readdress your position on no charge shipping unless you’re comfortable with the loss of revenue. I’ve met some clients that think the artist is under some sort of special obligation to go out way of their way to appease them, like they’re doing you a big favor by buying your work. Like Karl stated above, I don’t know of any business that would go to that extreme without some sort of compensation. Just saying

        1. As I mentioned in another comment – we covered the shipping. It varies by client. Where these clients had already made a number of major purchases, I was very happy to pick up the shipping.

          1. Wow Jason, I would show with you ANY time. Covering shipping is a class act, and your reassurance to the client is also. I agree with your approach; you can’t do too much to make a client happy. And never judge a book by its cover! Just this past week a shopper showed up in the local community center gallery room (where I work in the office doing marketing a couple of days a week.) Three ladies; obviously just finished hiking, a bit sweaty and unkempt, windblown, dusty. Hair up under baseball caps and make-up free (you go girls); older ladies (i.e., my age!) One of them came into the office (the gallery room is not attended) and asked if anyone could help. Since I happened to also have pieces in the show I of course came over and was happy to show the pieces they were reviewing (not mine, darn it lol) and discuss the artist (who happens to be a neighbor and a good friend.) I didn’t sell *my* work that day, but closed an almost $3K sale for my friend! Which took a bit of work – tape measures, car seats, and improvised wrapping (since usually we don’t allow buyers to remove the work until the end of the show) were involved, but happily we made it work. The client rode off into the sunset with her new piece safely tucked in the back seat, and by now it’s hanging somewhere in Pasadena. I’m still smiling.

  3. I am in complete agreement with you, Jason. I never pressure customers to purchase something as personal as artwork. I don’t take it personally if a customer doesn’t love a piece. Move on and try to ascertain what they do and do not like so I can find something more to their liking. And no, I wouldn’t require the potential customer to pay for my time or shipping if they just didn’t want the piece. Customers remember when a business owner nickels and dimes them, and don’t return.

  4. As an artist, I want people collecting a painting because they really love it and to not if they don’t. With the hours of work and love put into creating a piece – a painting is like a family member sent out into the world. I love when it finds a good home where it will really fit and be loved. So it doesn’t bother me if a painting gets passed up because it’s not quite right for a space or the spouse doesn’t “feel” it as much as the other.

  5. You handled this well, Jason … but I would like to echo Karl Sanders’ question. Suppose someone acquires a piece of art from me, and I either deliver it (perhaps an all day or overnight trip) or ship it. Would you tell a collector they can return the work, but would have to pay for shipping? Or pickup? It would be nice to say “no, I’ll do that in the interest of customer service” — but most of us don’t have margins like Zappos. Also, would your answer be different if the collector were a first-time buyer, so you had o idea whether they would ever consider your work again? While I would be able to handle a return emotionally, the expense of the return would seriously cut into what I would make from the sale.

    1. I agree with Helen and Karl. It can be an expense for an artist to ship art back and forth only to have the client not want it. I would love my art find homes where it is appreciated. But there is also the practicality of time and expense. I’m not sure how I would handle this.

    2. I would think a first time buyer wouldn’t get the piece overnight without some sort of security deposit? I do think it’s an entirely different story when it’s an artist dealing with a client vs a gallery. As a commissioned artist I do charge a non refundable deposit toward the price, however, I work with them throughout the process to make sure it’s exactly what they want. This way there are no returns and most are happier with the actual piece

  6. Wonderful advise! Just went through two similar situations. I walked away knowing I have made a positive connection for potential future sales and felt elevated that I got positive feedback even though it wasn’t a perfect fit.

    This is off subject, but what about all those shipping and delivery costs? The two galleries That requested my art required me to pay for shipping out and back…. but these costs start adding up. I’m new at this, but I believe the potential client and the gallery should be sensitive to that? In your situation did you or the client offer to pay those costs? What is your advise regarding that?

  7. I think this depends a lot on the price range of the art you’re talking about.

    Let’s say it costs $250 to pack and ship an 18″x24″ painting. If it’s one by a beginning artist that retails for $800 and the commission is 50%, the artist must subtract the $250 (and the cost of frame, canvas, etc.) from their $400 – so if the artist has to pay for shipping, it doesn’t take much for them to go in the red.

    If the same size painting by a well-known artist retails for $8,000, then those costs are the same, but they represent only a small percentage of the income from a sale, so extra efforts and costs will be covered. Since the gallery and the artist share in the income if the piece sells, it seems reasonable for the gallery and the artist to share in some of these costs.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly that I need to make the hoped-for-new-purchaser as comfortable as possible so they won’t hesitate to work with me again. However, it is difficult to absorb the shipping costs if you are an individual artist, especially if you are just starting to sell. If they offered to pay for shipping expenses I would be graciously thankful!

  9. I’ve always offered the same conditions to anyone commissioning a piece, “if you don’t like it you don’t pay for it”. Bite the bullet and move on.

  10. I agree, if they don’t love then I don’t want to force it. It’s really hard to know whether to continue “selling” the piece or let it go. As you say, it depends on the client

  11. I think you did the right thing Jason. It is exactly as I would have done. However does the artist have to cover the cost of shipping both ways in a case like this, or do you put their work on display in your gallery to try an sell it to another customer?

    1. I covered the shipping both ways. In a situation where the artist isn’t represented in our gallery and doesn’t get some other benefit from the shipping, it only makes sense that the gallery would cover it.

      1. I am impressed your gallery does this. Your artist is lucky you did this for her! I had no idea you did. Since you covered her cost I fully agree you did the right thing. I would want my art only in a home where it is loved by all there.

        By the way I love your blog and I have learned alot from it. Thank you!

  12. Angering a patron is hardly intelligent. With grace and a genuine helpful attitude,
    many will return in time for another painting. If they were left feeling guilty or
    pressured, it’s likely the artist would never hear from them again. Just as people
    often try on clothing in a change room while shopping, sometimes a painting is
    best ‘tried out’ on a given wall for the patron to see. Happy smiles and a gracious
    attitude, like you practice, Jason, is the way to go ! Works for me.

  13. Yes, agreed! Here’s an instance where it helps to be represented in a gallery. Jason graciously covered the costs and acted as a buffer so the clients and artist didn’t have whst could have been a tense or heartbreaking conversation. Jason, I’m going to try your idea of allowing a potential sale to occur by letting someone who loves one of my paintings try it out for a few days. Her spouse isn’t sure, but maybe seeing it in person will make the difference. Let’s see! I’m willing to take the emotional risk and will be gracious if it’s not the right fit. Patience also goes a long way… someone who almost bought a painting from me 3 years ago is now commissioning me to make a 48×60″ painting for an important spot in her home! So glad I was patient and kept her on my mailing list all this time!

  14. Jason you are a guy with a big heart. I think your extremely responsible attitude transcends the problems and will keep clients for you for years and years to come. I learned a lot from this. This story reminds me of my first potential big painting sale. I’ve done digital art and finally displayed an oil painting in my local art association gallery. Had no idea for a price. I took the advice of my fellow artist friends and put a $1325 price tag on it. An artist friend had a friend who was quite interested in it and I thought it was a sale. But the friend never put us in touch, even though I asked. He seemed to want to be the go-between. The show closed and no sale. Then I needed to move and downsize, so I called my friend and told him if his friend is still interested, I need to downsize and only want $925 for the painting and I’d deliver it. My friend then tells me that his friend is angry that I tried to charge $1325 before. This is a real disaster of errors, but I think the worst thing I did was not insisting on having the conversation with the prospective client from the start. (The gallery does not usually get involved in the sales. It’s a small non-profit.) Thanks for listening!

  15. So totally agree with not pressuring anyone.
    I give locals a 24 hour return policy. and never had a return. (easy driving distance from studio)
    we offer a 48 hour return at one of the galleries I am rep’ed by and Never had a return.
    it puts the clients so at ease.
    and I always offer to hang work at a clients home. they turn into repeat customer and love the story to tell friends.

  16. Several years ago I received a portrait commission from the Mother of a little boy. She wanted his portrait painted. I did that and called her when the painting was finished. She looked at it and said, “His hair is not that color. It is much lighter than what you’ve painted.” I told her I would work on it and for her to come back in 2 hours. After she left I checked and double checked the photos I had of the little boy. The hair looked the right color to me. So I decided to darken the background. When she returned she said, “Now, that’s the right color. Thank you for fixing it.” I never told her I had not touched the color.

  17. This situation is such a great opportunity to turn a refusal into a positive experience. I tell them the truth: I don’t ever want someone to buy a piece of my art unless they love it. I tell them “Look, you’re the one who has to see this every single day. You’re the one who has to live with it, and you’re making a significant outlay for it, so shouldn’t you be able to love it?” What I wish for the person who buys a piece of my work is that it gives them a little stab of pleasure every time they look at it, and I tell them so. I tell them I appreciate that they like my work, and I tell them that I’ll keep them in mind and send them emails with images of each new work. They are grateful for being understood, and we part friends.

  18. As others have noted, there’s no way, and no reason to force clients to purchase artwork about which they are not passionate. That said, as an artist, I never ship art unless it is paid for in full, including the shipping costs. In all the years I’ve worked as a professional artist, I’ve never had a piece returned because the client was dissatisfied. If that ever occurs, they will still need to cover shipping costs.

    If I order an auto, or furniture, or clothes from across the country, there is no way that any of that merchandise will be shipped to me without my having made all of the financial arrangements. Original artwork is even more precious than these mass-produced items…why not use the same business procedures?

  19. This type situation usually leads me to offer to create a special piece as a commissioned work, taking time to help the client select the art style, subject, colors to include, framing and so on. It is a process then of staying in touch with the client through all stages of design and making the art. I find that helping the client in this way is also a great way to build a strong relationship and trust.

  20. I agree. It is VERY expensive to pack and ship art. I have known artists that have spent over 100.00 to ship a piece. The artist shipment should be refunded to her at the very least. Buy something on line and don’t like the consumer in most case pays the shipping still and the return shipping.

    1. This is all a matter of perspective. I think our total shipping costs from the artist to us and back was close to $500. That’s not an insignificant amount, but these clients have spent around $20,000 total with the gallery, and will likely spend more in the future because we maintained the relationship.

  21. We’ve been running into the ‘husband objection’, (which happens often enough that we’ve given it a nickname), where one member of the couple vetoes the purchase, usually because of price. How best do we work through that situation, maintain the relationship, and end up with a sale of some sort?

  22. Perhaps this is for another subject to be discussed but after going to the trouble to hang the artwork (which can be an interesting process for many obvious reasons) how do you remove the hanging device and repair the wound to the wall surface? Or do you simply remove the artwork and leave the client with the repairs? A fussy client may be difficult to satisfy.

    1. We use Floreat hooks which have the tiniest of pins. There’s nothing to repair when removing. With that said, if there were a circumstance where a hole was created, I always have spackle in my hanging kit and will fill the hole. I let the client handle the paint touch up (there has to be some limit, right?!)

  23. Great piece, Jason. Thanks. Since most of my marketing is online, I’m always sensitive to the difference between how my work looks in a phone/desktop monitor and in how iut looks in 3D. I have to be aware that the client’s first impression of it will be confronted by the reality of it — a particularly sensitive issue if they’re acquiring it remotely, and seeing it for the first time after they’ve purchased.

  24. I really didn’t mean to spur this spin off conversation. I want to preface this with that my 20 years experience is coming from commercial art. Nothing is free in that world. Also I’m talking about sculpture not painting. Trust me, shipping is a completely different beast when you are dealing with Bronze Sculpture. So far this discussion seems to be dealing with 2D art.
    I wrote what would be considered a dissertation about experience with collectors, clients….but decided to delete it.
    Here is the nut shell of what I was trying to point out. Anything you do that offers work for free is detrimental to the concept that art can be considered a living. This is a business. It is how I pay my bills.
    If a gallery wants to offer this up and own the cost, that’s great. That would defenetly be a reason I would want to be represented.
    I’m sorry but this post didn’t read this way to me. It read as a recommendation of how to work with clients.

  25. I have had this happen once where a piece was shipped to New York, actually, she had bought two. She kept the larger canvas and the other paper piece was too large for space or anywhere in her home. So she shipped the one piece back. I don’t take any of that personally, as I have the mindset of wanting people to really love what they purchase from me and if it isn’t perfect then it will be for someone else. Hopefully 🙂 Mind you this particular paper piece might just end up in my collection as it really speaks to me. We want our creations to be somewhere special where people love them and rave about them not “Gosh I bought this and I have never felt it was right for my home or space but didn’t have the heart to say anything.” We sure don’t want that.

  26. Ahhhh did the artist try to seize the opp to have you sell it to someone else before returning it? Would you have considered putting it on a wall for a short time to see if all could come away with a positive? (After all, it is there already). And might you consider it?

    1. Hi Thrya;

      It was a paper piece and quite large so it would have had to be framed. Maybe that was part of the issue I am not sure. I priced to have framed and here in South it would have bee $300.00 or so Canadian. I got carried away and I love the piece but it is quite large paper piece. Mind you that didn’t stop me as I have completed an even larger one. lol

      1. Hi Darlene,
        Many artists in the states are hanging large paper pieces without frames. I believe one way is with magnets. Asking other artists working on paper may yield some ideas to let you continue doing large works? :^)

  27. Hi Jason and group;

    Here is a zinger of a question. What do you do if you sold a very large painting 6’x 7′ (request of collector for the wall in space they wanted it) in 2010 and they have now moved and want you to resell it because it is not fitting in the area they now live, smaller condo space. Hmm, thoughts? It was a commission that was at the request of the collector and not really a style I do at all anymore or ever actually. It was painted with specs and colours of the collector at that time to go with the kitchen and dining area that they had at that time 2010.

  28. Jason, you are absolutely right about how to handle the clients that didn’t purchase the art. Very Classy!
    I have been selling art for almost thirty years and on many occasions, I have been in this kind of situations. Sometimes it took many “home visits” before they decided on the particular piece, but because of my patience, understanding, and personal attention, I have gained their trust and loyalty.

  29. I definitely appreciate the effort to allow the client the opportunity to view the piece “in situ”. Many times, people will be attracted to a work in a gallery or studio, but don’t have the clarity of vision to actually “see” it in their space. Most of the time, when they actually see the piece where they want it, it works well. There are also ways one can accommodate sales “in situ” in this digital age – using a digital photo of the space / wall, your digitally place the work in the image(s) and allow them to make a decision that way. Even being able to digitally “show” various kinds of frames on a piece help the sale, or showing it on different wall colors. A lot of these kinds of decisions can be accommodated via email without the expense & risk of shipping the piece.

  30. I even have a policy with respect to commissions, if the collector doesn’t like it, they don’t have to take it… I don’t want anyone to have a painting of mine on their walls if they don’t love it… Enforcing a sale (or making a collector feel guilty or obliged) doesn’t do an artist any justice..

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