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ART TALK - Part 1

by Alan Bamberger

Q. What are the differences between private and public art dealers? Can I save money buying from private dealers because they have less overhead? Are their selections any better or worse than public galleries? Please enlighten me.

A. No hard and fast rules distinguish from private art dealers. How and where they choose to conduct business is most often a matter of personal preference. You can find any type of art anywhere and at any time. Never rule out a potential resource for art until you’ve personally viewed their stock.

Generalizations can sometimes be made, however. Public dealers often prefer the challenges of selling to whoever happens to walk through their gallery doors.

They’re more inclined to focus on art that has widespread or commercial appeal and is more easily understood by the general public. They tend to thrive on dealing with people and enjoy the higher profiles that open locations provide. Public spaces also allow dealers greater opportunities to meet artists for possible representation and buy art from sellers who walk in off the street.

Private dealers, on the other hand, tend to prefer keeping more to themselves, enjoy the freedom of not having to keep regular business hours, and tend to be more selective in who they choose to do business with. They tend to deal more in art that is of not that much interest to casual buyers who walk in off the street. They’re not particularly commercial and often attract more sophisticated collectors who possess the education and background that’s necessary to appreciate and understand their art.

Private dealers also tend to specialize in niche markets. Their art often appeals to such small percentages of the collecting public that operating public spaces makes little sense. Their selections may be extensive, but only within areas like Old Master prints, 19 th century photographs, or modernist drawings. Most all specialist collectors know each other and know who deals in the art that they collect so it’s less important that these dealers maintain high profiles. Newer collectors who don’t initially know all the dealers eventually find out who they are, usually by word of mouth, and than make their visits. As for saving money from private dealers, sometimes their art is more reasonably priced and sometimes it’s not. Certain specialist may charge more than public galleries because of their superior knowledge, expertise, and the higher quality of their art. Then again, dealers who operate privately in order to eliminate overhead sometimes sell at prices somewhat below those of retail galleries.

As a collector, you do have to be a little more careful shopping privately than you do in public spaces. The variation in private dealers is larger than among public ones for the simple reason that operating privately is easier than doing so publicly. Almost anyone can hang out a shingle and appear to be a going concern at least for a short period of time. Several recognized and reputable organizations of private dealers exist, however, and their members are certainly OK to wok with.

Tips on evaluating private dealers (and public ones, for that matter):

  • Look for signs that they’re well established and have been in business for years.
  • Find out whether they ever set up and sell at major respected art fairs or antique shows.
  • Get recommendations or referrals from other dealers and collectors who you know and trust (this is always important, but more so for dealing with private than public dealers.)
  • Keep in mind that if you like to shop more on the wholesale level from less established dealers than finding good buys in private settings may seem a little easier and a little more exciting, but it’s also more risky.

Alan Bamberger’s book “Art For All” published by Wallace Homestead Book Co. is available. Autographed copies might be available. Send $14.95 plus $2.00 S&H to or Contact Alan Bamberger, 2510 Bush St., San Francisco, CA. 94115

Art Talk - Part 2

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