An Introduction to the Markets For Contemporary Art

Or “How Can I Tell If This Gallery is Tacky?”
December 9, 2015
A photograph of Kathryn Markel Fine Arts' Bridgehampton location with a watercolor painting by Kim Uchiyama on display. It was shot behind red roses.
Kathryn Markel Fine Arts' Bridgehampton Location

Every week, we'll be your guide as you navigate the world of buying art in our series, The Collector. 


If you're ready to start searching for your first piece of art, it'll help to have some insight into how the contemporary art market is organized. There are a few different things to consider to narrow down your hunt. 


First, it's best to decide what type of work you're looking for. There are typically four different areas in the contemporary art market and most dealers will sell art from one or more of these areas. They are:


1. The Reputable Print Market, which covers works by both emerging and established artists.


2. The Avant-Garde, otherwise known as "emerging artists."


3. The Established artist, which covers artists whose work is well-known by the art-going public, and represented in both private and museum collections.


4. The Contemporary Masters, who are generally acknowledged to be important figures in the history of contemporary American, such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and  Andy Warhol


Then, understanding the difference between the primary and secondary markets can help parse gallery jargon and help you determine value.


Most dealers - especially those who handle less expensive works - sell in both the primary market and the secondary market.


  • The primary market refers to art that comes directly from the artists' studio and is sold by the dealer from the studio to the collector.


  • The secondary market refers to art that is put up for sale, not by the artist, but by a collector or other dealer who has purchased the work in the past and now wants to sell. This is typically done through galleries or art auctions. By definition, art on the secondary market is made by artists who have a substantial art-world reputation. There is no secondary market for work by artists who do not enjoy such a reputation. 

Many dealers do not exhibit art they have from the secondary market in their galleries, but do show it in their back room. You can always talk   with the gallery staff to see if they have anything available to show you.


Now that you know what type of art interests you, you'll need to know where to buy it.


Every town has an art world, and these smaller, more localized worlds form the biggest segment of the art market. This includes your local galleries, exhibitions in your library, and college museums. These places tend to show original art such as paintings, photographs, and works on paper done by your neighbors.  There may also be art fairs or auctions for you to attend. To be informed about all of the local goings on, contact your county or regional art council as well as the art departments at local colleges. They have newsletters listing local exhibitions, and are familiar with local artists.


Your neighborhood frame shop will also occasionally have some original art by local artists, but will primarily carry inexpensive posters from national publishers. Prices for framed posters typically range from $50 - $400, depending on size and frame. These pictures have no resale value. Sometimes, your local framer will have some "Limited Edition Prints" which can range in the thousands of dollars, but they are usually nothing more than elaborately framed signed posters and have no resale value.


Unfortunately, that kind of behavior is something to look out for in the art market.  The art world is filled with genuine, passionate people who want to help you, but there are also a lot of scams to navigate.  You'll want to ensure you're only considering authentic art and avoiding anything that's, well, just plain tacky.


So, how do you know if a gallery is tacky?


Tacky galleries tend to cluster in large upscale shopping areas, malls, and especially in resort areas. Never buy art on a cruise ship or in an airport.  Often, people only think about buying art when they're on vacation, and sleazy dealers want to take advantage of that. These markets are typically filled with worthless reproductions that are extremely overpriced.


A good rule of thumb for spotting a tacky gallery is seeing if they boast prints or reproductions of Normal Rockwell, Salvador Dali, Erte, or Marc Chagall, especially if they're pushing them as "Limited Edition Prints" which, again, is typically smoke and mirrors. These artists fall under the realm of "commercial art" and are usually looked over by reputable dealers, but tacky dealers will cash in on that high demand and jack up the prices far beyond what they're worth.


The dealers that work in these tacky galleries always talk investment and rely on gimmicks like the vaunted  "Certificate of Authenticity," which in reality is a worthless sheet of paper.  The certificate normally tells the truth about the work, but in such convoluted terms that it's difficult to realize that the piece you're buying has zero resale value. Think of it akin to any collectible market - if it sounds too much like someone trying to unload a pile of Beanie Babies on you, it's probably not a reputable dealer.


Most of the time, the people who sell this stuff are not bad people. They are, however, ignorant about art and the current art market. They are merely salesmen who repeat what they're told and have no idea what they're actually selling. However, there is a group of truly unscrupulous dealers who do actually lie about what they are selling you. They claim that these "Limited Edition Prints" are original works of art. Moreover, they will try and pass off old master prints as originals when they are less valuable posthumous restrikes - prints made after the artist's death on original plates. They also sell forgeries.


Then how do I know if a gallery is reputable?


Most reputable galleries work directly with their artists. They represent a stable of 20-30 artists who they choose to work with and, by representing them, not only exhibit the artist's work regularly but are also responsible for public relations pertaining to the artist and the work itself. They take care of the artists' images, get the artists reviews, place the artist's work into major private and corporate collections, and do everything possible to enhance the artist's career. They are also active in getting the artist exhibitions in other galleries around the country.


The reputable Art Dealer has an extensive library, often because they are art historians or collectors that became dealers. They are happy to educate, explain, and teach. They have a passion for the art they sell, and they want to communicate it. They're 100% behind the work and will give you your money back if the piece is not exactly as described in the invoice. They will not offer you a "Certificate of Authenticity" but will happily document for you, in the invoice, the information required by local laws. (Check with your regional art council for your state's laws. Typically it includes the basics like name of the artist, medium, and size.)  They'll also give full condition reports, and will document fading, foxing (impurities resulting from the materials aging), or other problems of a work on paper or older canvases.


An easy way to do some research on the dealer's reputation is by checking out their online presence. If they have an active website and social media, are talked about by art world publications and influencers, and have a community of happy fans following them it's likely they're legitimate. 

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