It is highly unlikely that you will strike it rich, Antiques Roadshow style, with a piece of art that you own. More likely: If you own an artwork that someone else out there would like to have, you may be able to realize a profit that will please you. The market for art is heated up at the moment, with Leonardo Da Vinci's long lost 'Salvator Mundi', selling for a record breaking $450 million in November 2017. Even if you don’t have a long lost, legendary piece in your attic, you may have a piece of art that's worth consigning to a reputable art gallery for sale. (See Fine Art Can Be A Fine Investment.)

To learn more about what’s involved in finding that reputable art gallery and getting the best price for what you want to sell, we spoke to Alexandra Schwartz, director of Pace Prints New York. Schwartz has been a dealer for 35 years, specializes in 20th century works on paper and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA).

Where do I start to look for a gallery?

First, you need to know what you have in order to determine what gallery is your best choice. Is this an American painting from the 1930s? Is it by an artist who was part of the Impressionist movement of the late 19th century? Once you have a solid idea of what, exactly, you are selling, a preliminary search online will give you an idea of which galleries specialize in that particular artist or period.

Some prospective sellers like to make this first piece of the search more personal – they will walk up and down the aisles of an art fair, identify what dealers would be most likely to be interested in their artwork, engage them in conversation and show them a photo of the piece they want to sell. The best dealers are passionate about their profession, love to talk about the art they buy and sell and have a wide-ranging knowledge of their subject. They should be happy to talk to you.

How do I know a gallery is reputable?

There is no licensing process for art dealers; it is a profession based primarily on trust. So how can you “vet” a dealer? A good way to do this, according to Schwartz, is to choose a gallery that is a member of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA). Founded in 1962, the ADAA has 180 member galleries in 25 cities that cover every major collecting field from Old Masters to contemporary art, and every medium from sculpture to painting to drawing, prints, photography, video and film. To qualify for membership, a gallery must have been in business for at least five years and, as the organization’s materials state: “have a reputation for honesty and integrity, have expert knowledge in a selected field and make a substantial contribution to the cultural life of the community.”

However, the ADAA is not the only game in town – there are many other professional groups that galleries may belong to. Some of these are regional – many cities have their own – and some specialize in a particular kind of art. (See this list of gallery organizations in the U.S., for instance.)

How do I make initial contact with the gallery?

Unless you make the one-on-one contact with a dealer at an art fair as mentioned above, your first contact will probably be by phone. Galleries welcome cold calls. Once you have the right dealer on the phone, he/she will ask questions to help determine whether a face-to-face meeting makes sense. The dealer will want to find out just exactly what you have and something about how you acquired it (for more on the all-important issues of title and provenance, see Importance of Title in Art Transactions). E-mailing a photo – even a cell phone generated one – will help the dealer begin to make the determination.

What should I expect when I first meet with the gallery?

In addition to asking you questions about how you acquired the work, a reputable dealer should be able to tell you something about the current market for works like yours – what the demand is, what the value may be, how long it may take to sell if it’s consigned and what the gallery’s commission will be. Consignment is the more usual (and favored) approach although sometimes the dealer will buy the work outright. A direct sale usually happens when the seller is in a particular hurry to raise funds and most often the reason for the rush is one of the 3 Ds: death, debt or divorce.

When a work is taken on consignment, the dealer agrees to work to sell the art for a pre-established commission and give the seller the net proceeds of the sale. A consignment deal is preferable for both the dealer (no cash outlay) and the seller (higher proceeds).

What needs to be in the consignment agreement?

Once you have decided on the gallery where you want to consign your work of art, remember that all terms of your agreement with that gallery are negotiable. And be sure to get every detail of your negotiations written into the agreement. Do not assume anything when formulating the paperwork.  

  • Your agreement should include a detailed description of the work with any catalog references, provenance details or exhibition history. (The labels on the back of the frame of most works will give you much of the information you need.)
  • It should clearly state what percentage of the sale the commission will be. Commissions vary by dealer and are influenced by the projected value of the work of art but will usually range from 10% to 30%.
  • The agreement must also include the prescribed term of consignment. You want the timeline to be reasonable – enough time for the dealer to shop it around, but not too much time because overexposure on the market is detrimental to a good sale. An average of six months or less is a reasonable standard.
  • Be certain that the gallery is going to insure the work from the time it is picked up to the time it is returned to you. It will be insured for the consigned price, not the gross sale price. Usually the cost of the insurance will be covered by the gallery.
  • And, if the work needs restoration or reframing, be sure to establish in the agreement who will be paying for that.
  • If you don’t want the work consigned to another gallery, you need to indicate that in the agreement. Or, you can stipulate that you must give permission before it is consigned to a third party. You should also indicate whether you are willing to have it shown in an art fair or exhibited at the gallery.
  • The terms of the payment must be very clearly laid out – how you are to be paid and how soon after the sale you will receive payment.  

What’s most in demand in today’s market?

The hottest categories in the current market are works of 20th century and contemporary art (usually considered to be art made in the past 15 years). Some of the most sought-after artists at the moment are Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Christopher Wool and Ed Ruscha. If you have art by any of that illustrious group to sell, lucky you! It also goes without saying that if you have a previously undiscovered Da Vinci, you're looking at a nice little payout for yourself. 

The Bottom Line

A good dealer is one whom you can trust absolutely. You want to be certain that the dealer you engage is knowledgeable, qualified and ethical. Do the necessary research, but trust your instincts, too – ask yourself how comfortable you feel with this dealer – before you make your final choice.

For more on buying and selling art, see The Advantages of Investing in Art & Collectibles and The Risks of Investing in Art and Collectibles.