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

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27 Comments

  1. Black over brown is “top-heavy” and the whole hearth surround is blocky and uncomfortable to begin with.
    Really needs something light and light-reflecting like the piece that was sent, but perhaps not so square on square, softer, a different shape, maybe more of an organic feeling.

    1. I have question which isn’t directly related but maybe someone can help me with this type of situation. I just finished my third exhibit since 2017 and have managed quite a lot of sales mostly to friends and acquaintances. One situation that makes me uncomfortable is when I tour around the gallery with a visitor who stops in front of one of my paintings saying that that one if their favorite amongst all works there. I don’t quite know how to go to the next step if the person isn’t mentioning anything about acquiring the piece, I think he or she might be just commenting the exhibition and complimenting my work.
      Suggesting that they might want to acquire it might make them feel uncomfortable if they don’t really intend to buy it. Of course I might have them tell me what they like about it and listen to what they have to say.

  2. And I agree on allowing clients to “preview” a piece in their setting — have a tapestry weaving out right now that someone is considering redecorating around.
    If it doesn’t feel right to them, I would rather it goes to someone who will love it and not regret the purchase.
    And often, it will give me ideas about how to do another piece in that “series” which might work better for them or just gives me further market feedback in general.

  3. I had a similar experience delivering a piece to a doctor’s penthouse. After keeping it for a few days he decided to return the piece to me and we agreed on a time and date for pickup. He was so rude. I arrived and could not reach him by phone or doorman. I circled 45 minutes because there was no place to park. He finally texted that the painting was in the lobby . He was not even polite enough to meet me personally . I doubt I will ever take art to someone’s home again.

    1. It’s possible he was embarrassed about the confrontation, having refused to purchase after you’d gone to all that trouble. It’s probably just as well you didn’t meet face to face, as he would have had to save face by belittling your work. That can get messy. It’s hard to know in advance just what kind of personality you’re dealing with. Mr Horejs was dealing with an old, familiar client – you, with an ‘unknown.’

    2. Please don’t give up on mankind. So often, placing the art in the client’s home seals the deal. What you might want to do in the future is to reassure the client before the art is in their home, they aren’t committed in any way, don’t feel bad if it isn’t the right piece, thank you for wanting to try it out, yadda yadda, that way, they may feel comfortable enough with the process to try another piece sometime. If you have suspicions about the client, that may have an alterior motive, just leave the art in their home overnight NOT on a weekend. Having worked in a high end designer store for many years, we have had our share of customers who buy something and return it after the weekend. They just wanted it to decorate for a party.

  4. My belief is that you always treat people with kindness and respect. Unfortunately, people change their mind and the customer is always right even when they aren’t. I think it is important not to take rejection personally although that is sometimes very difficult.

  5. You are so right Jason about putting the customer at ease, and removing any guilt on their part about inconveniencing you. Sometimes a customer will really like a piece, however they may not feel confident about purchasing it for a variety of reasons. That is when it is reliant upon the dealer to identify what those concerns are, and put them to rest. At other times the artwork simply does not feel right when they get it into the environment. One obstacle I encounter with customers is that at times they may be very excited about a particular piece and come into the gallery several times to see it, and think about it. Many times they bring a friend or family member into the gallery to get their opinion. The friend will at times say something negative about it, and effect the sale. It is my belief that the reason this happens at times is because the friend is actually a bit envious that they cannot purchase the work; therefore consciously or subconsciously they cast a negative shadow on it. In some instances they simply have different taste. When I hear this sort of exchange going on, I like to engage the friend and inquire about what sort of work appeals to them. I ask them directly about the sort of work which they live with. It sort of reveals to the customer that they really do not share the same taste. I then go about validating the work and get the customer to trust their instincts. It really requires a lot of tact and is quite a balancing act.

    1. Thanks for this comment Ray! I do a lot of Art Fairs, and the number of times a possible client has taken the advice of a friend is to many to count. The way you deal with the situation is very tactful, and I will definitely use it from now on!

  6. My opinion is that I want a customer to really like and appreciate a work of mine. Going back to an article written a short time ago regarding consignment work. When I talk to a potential customer about a custom piece I always tell them that when the piece is completed and it does not meet their expectations for any reason they are not obligated to buy it. Unless it is personalized with a name and/or date. I would then try to determine why they don’t care for it and try to remedy it. To date this has never happened. However, I did have a customer who stated they loved a particular piece but asked that it be re-framed differently. This was easily done. A few weeks later, much to my surprise, I discovered the same piece in a consignment store. I felt slighted and betrayed. Had the customer talk to me I may have worked something out for a return or exchange. I was able to purchase it from the consignment store and protect it’s value. Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to deliver a piece of art to a home in the hopes of making a sale. Little effort for, at the least, good customer relations.

  7. Unfortunately these days if someone sees a work in a catalogue or on a web site it can appear quite different when the actual piece is in front of you. Or also when seen in the space where it is to be displayed in a home or office it may not match one’s expectations.

    In a time when one can buy most anything at a store or order most anything on line and return it if not satisfied it is not unexpected that someone would do this with an art purchase. Buying or selling art sight unseen is increasing and is a gamble for the artist that depends upon the buyer being satisfied before actually seeing the work. As more and more art is being sold this way the amount of returned works is likely to grow.

    One caveat however. If the buyer waits several months or more before returning an artwork I do think the artist is justified in denying a refund, although this should be stated up front at the time of the sale. Every artist should have a return policy and make sure a buyer is aware of it.

  8. I had a couple return a painting the following day at an Art Fair and I was quite surprised because they had seen the piece on my website and they were at the Fair waiting for me to open. I couldn’t get a good answer about why they were returning it and I know they felt bad to do it. It did bother me but I was gracious and wrote them a check. In retrospect I’m glad they felt they could bring it back to me but I haven’t seen them since and that was a couple of years ago. You win some and you lose some.
    Note: I eventually sold the painting to someone else.

  9. I had someone purchase a work that reminded her of a relative who had recently died. About a year later, it made her feel sad to look at it rather than better, so I told her she could exchange it for something else. She ended up buying 2 pieces and I just gave her an appropriate discount.

  10. I was painting with watercolors above the beach at Corona del Mar, CA, when a woman passed by and said she loved my painting and how much was it? I gave her a very low price because it was on-the-spot, unframed, and an amusing experience. She gave me a check but when she got home her husband said, “How could you buy a painting when you know I just lost my job?” She asked if I would take it back and, of course, I did.

  11. Interesting because the colors in the painting match the room that is visible to the right in the photo. At first glance, the pillow on the black couch looks like a print of the painting itself. As always, you are professional in the way you handle your gallery and your clients. That’s why you are thriving, where many are not. It’s all about attitude.

    When I ship a painting, I always state on the invoice that if unsatisfied, painting must be shipped back within a week of receipt. It’s something that I think we all have to expect is a possibility.

  12. “At the end of the day, people will remember how you made them feel.” a quote from Maya Angelou.

    I always want to be gracious and kind in those situations with clients and view it as a learning experience. You can’t argue religion, politics, choices in partners or their tastes in art.

  13. If we have a patron who obviously wants to buy a piece but is having a little trouble pulling the trigger, we offer to let them pay for it, take it home, and allow them to bring it back within a week in good shape for a full refund if they are not satisfied. So far, the only patron who returned one bought two to replace it. Win-Win!

  14. I am wondering what you do if I client has purchased a piece of art, actually a commissioned work that was completed and okayed by the client. It was shipped and hand delivered to the client. It was installed and they were super happy. Then After having it for 6 weeks, out of the blue they decide that it isn’t a good fit. How do you handle that?

  15. As an artist, it seems the most important thing is to build a relationship. Building trust takes time and effort, and I am happy to have a 100% satisfaction guarantee on my work. When folks know that you stand by your work, it makes building the long-term relationship a lot easier. It does seem a good idea to set a return policy. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

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