What Would You Do? The Client Who Won’t Finish Paying

I received the following email from an artist:

[Last] year, a collector came to my studio and chose two paintings. The smaller work was priced at approx. $1100, the other $1300. He paid me a deposit of $1200 and took the smaller of the works, telling me that next month he would drop over, pay the second half and pick up painting #2. That didn’t happen. Since that time I’ve emailed and FB messaged him multiple time (probably once every couple weeks) and he either doesn’t respond or says that his schedule is crazy (he does have a high-powered downtown LA job). He always apologizes and is very friendly in his correspondence.

The bottom line is that I’m getting impatient and a little grumpy about this—not that I would ever let him sense this. I’d like the painting on his wall and the money in my bank! Of course, I don’t want to turn him off. But, on the other hand, he doesn’t seem reliable. Should I give him a gentle ultimatum? Ask him if he’s still interested in the other painting and, if not, send him a refund for the difference? I’ve offered to deliver the work to him and never got a response. What would you do?

My response:

I completely understand how frustrating this situation is. While I haven’t had the exact situation, I have had experience waiting patiently for payment. Fortunately it sounds like the way it was set up you were never at risk of not being paid for artwork the client has, which was very smart on your part.

I wouldn’t give up quite yet. Do you happen to use Square payments, or PayPal or similar? I ask, because I might try sending an email where I say something along the lines of, “I know how busy things get, but I just started using a new payment system that should make things easier. I’m sending you an invoice for the second piece using Square (or PayPal) that you can pay right from your computer. Once the payment is taken care of, we can arrange for delivery of the piece at your convenience.” You’ll want to adapt this to fit with the other conversations you’ve had, but this should give you a template to work from. I would hope to have the client see this as you providing additional convenience and service, rather than nagging.

Send a photo of the piece with your email to remind him again of the artwork.

I hope that helps, but let me know if you have further questions or concerns. I would love to hear how this turns out.

The artist responded several weeks later:

To update you on reaching my unresponsive collector, three weeks ago I emailed him exactly as you suggested, rewording the message to suit our previous correspondence. As of today, nothing. No response at all. My instinct is to message/email him more-or-less these words…Unless I hear from him in the next few days I’m going to assume that you are no longer interested in the painting, and I will return it into my collection of works that are currently for sale.

Is this the best next course of action?

My response:

You’ve definitely gone above and beyond in terms of giving him opportunities to follow through. I would word it along these lines:

I know how crazy things can get and we’ve had a hard time connecting. I also understand that sometimes circumstances will change and a piece will no longer fit into previous plans. If you are still interested in the artwork, I would love to make arrangements to deliver it to you. If I haven’t heard from you by the end of the week, I’ll assume that I can make the piece available to my other clients.

In other words, I’m not angry, and I don’t blame the client. By using passive voice, I hope to soften out any harsh edges to the ultimatum. You’ll want to use your own words and make the communication feel natural, but you can see what I’m trying to say by wording it this way. My hope is to keep the door open so that if the client ever does show up again in the future there’s nothing awkward about the situation.

The final email from the artist about the resolution of the situation

So what do you know?!?! Fifteen minutes after I emailed my client he emailed back. He has been in the process of moving and had some “unexpected financial pressures.” But he wants to revisit me in about 6 months because he would “like to continue collecting [my] works.”

Your friendly and passive response had the desired effect. I’ve retained a collector and can put a wonderful painting back up for sale at a busy time of year for me. What a huge relief!

While it remains to be seen if the client will in fact return to make future purchases, it’s always best to maintain professionalism and to try to handle these situations with diplomacy.

Have you Run Into a Similar Situation Where a Client Failed to Pay?

Has this kind of thing ever happened to you? How did you respond? What do you think of the approach I suggested to this artist? Do you have any other ideas that might help in a situation of this sort? Please share your experiences and comments 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.

12 Comments

  1. I have to say that I would not have been so understanding. If you went to a retail store or art gallery, they will not hold something indefinitely. People take advantage of artists because they think we are “arty” and don’t understand business. If someone wants you to hold a painting back, there has to be a written time limit. 50% of the purchase price will guarantee that they are serious. He was lucky this time that the client got back to him. Yes, he is pleased that he didn’t turn off this client, but many times they promise the moon and don’t deliver.

  2. Fortunately, you are $100 ahead since he paid you $1,200 and took the $1,100 piece of art. You have been more than patient. I would send him a $100 refund and politely let him know that the $1,300 piece of art is no longer available, but thank him for the purchase of the first piece of art.

    1. Rather than send him the $100 refund, you could say something along the lines that you look forward to his visit when things have settled for him, and you will apply the $100 to his next purchase.

  3. What wonderful advice! Wake e square on my phone for my husbands business so will be sure to use your suggestions if I have a problem collecting payment. I have saved the conversation to use verbatim!

  4. Well, for one thing, the painting he has, he paid MORE than you were asking…so you had $100 over payment! Perhaps ask him to send a couple hundred more, and you’ll hold it.

    I had a tough sale ones, to another artist, by the name of Lorenzo. The painting he took was abut $3000, I took about $700….then found out he died! So, be careful you get things in writing when dealing with anyone. AND often if a patron is extra considerate, I will toss in a small “thank you” painting around 1/10 or so of what they purchased! Everyone loves being appreciated!

  5. I am so glad that it worked out for the artist and your advice and words were spot on Jason. I too am waiting for payment for not one but two paintings, one of which is a commissioned portrait. That being said my client has never let me down in the past even though it has taken 3-4 months for payment and he has purchased three other artworks from me before.
    I may have to use wording that you suggested here for the one artwork as it has been a few months since he advised me that he wanted it, but the commissioned piece I will have to be patient as he stated that it was a Christmas present and I feel confident that it will be paid for before the end of the year

  6. If the artist has no other buyers who want the 2nd painting, I’d be willing to wait out the 6 months, although I’d continue to show it in the event someone else wanted it. I don’t believe this guy is going to come through, especially as time moves on. I would make it clear to him that if another buyer approaches, I would not turn them away. This is just business.

  7. Why do strangers think that an artist or a gallery should be their banker instead of waiting until they have the money or using their credit cards? I say to gather up their funds and then buy. For many, many years I have declined to take payments for a painting that the client then feels is theirs although they don’t have possession. An art dealer with whom I shared space struggled with the problem of substantial payments received, the artwork still in his possession, but no longer actual contact with the purchaser or ability to send a refund or send the artwork. I don’t want to sell to someone who cannot afford the artwork, if I am not inclined to give it to them for next to nothing.

  8. I’m currently in this exact situation and can say that it pays to assume the best of people!

    Here’s the background:
    A client purchased a painting a couple of months ago, and 6 weeks ago emailed me asking me to hold two others. However, a month went by and I still hadn’t received any payment. Each time I reached out, she would reiterate that yes, she really wants them and will buy them… pushing out the date for purchase. Meanwhile other people showed interest in the two paintings and I could have sold them a couple of times over.

    I had a choice to make:
    I could have given the original client an ultimatum / become impatient with her… OR I could look at the situation through her eyes, assume that she is a valued collector and treat her as such. I I chose the latter.

    Upshot: she came through with the purchase (some personal issues had come up causing the delay) and now not only is she a true collector of my art with three paintings, but she also licensed the use of one of them for the logo of a non-profit she runs!

    Bonus, the other 2 people who were interested commissioned paintings, so I sold 2 more!

  9. I wish I had thought to give a response like you suggested, Jason! In 2017 I was with a co op gallery which was not working well for me. Absolutely no sales except some cards the whole time I was there. Except the last month after I had given my notice. An artist friend of mine was managing the gallery one day and she called me while I was out of town. A couple had bought a new condo in the ski resort town up the canyon and were buying art. The wife loved my art, bought 3 pieces of a series. She wanted the 4th piece but wanted it reframed in black. I agreed and she and husband left with the paid for 3 items. I immediately reframed the work, found they had left an email but no names! I emailed with a photo of the art in the new frame. I heard later that they had come back in and bought some sculptures but did not buy the work waiting for them. I had left a detailed note to whoever was working if and when they came in. I had to take the art with me when I left the gallery but I contacted them a few times and said I would be happy to deliver the art. I failed to give them a timeline or a way to pay remotely. Every year afterward as I was having art sales out of my home studio or was participating in a show I let them know. It has been 4 years and and I still don’t know their name and never heard back. I am getting ready to sell and move out of state and removing art from well used frames and took that piece out of it’s frame because I have no room to store art in the frames and the frames were getting worn. Needless to say..I have learned a few things from you. I talked the gallery into using the customer info cards so we artists had that information for our records. Unfortunately some of the co op members refused or forgot to use the cards which we kept handy in a beautiful box on the front desk. Second I failed to provide them with the means to pay me remotely. I assumed they would ask me for that information if they wanted the art. I did not mention to my friend to take a down payment on the art. There was provision to do that at the gallery. All the more reason to leave the art selling to the pros like you, Jason!

  10. What a great series of communications, leading to a good outcome.
    The language we use (in any area of our lives), along with compassionately attempting to understand the other person’s situation and perspective, can have a big impact on the situation, and on how each party feels about it.
    Thanks for sharing, Jason.

  11. Jason, thanks, it’s really very good solution! I don’t think if it would be possible to come up with something better in such situation. Patience, diplomacy, professionalism, humanity and the art of Win-Win thinking can make wonders. The answer you have suggested requires a lot of experience. It’s probably a pleasure to work with galleries like yours.

    There have been similar situations in my life that have taken away some of my energy ). One time the client did not pay me 20% of the price and after several attempts I decided to forget about it and focus on what inspired me more – creating art.

    Thanks so much for the very interesting blog and newsletter!

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