The Collector’s Guide for the Art Fair

As a gallerist who frequently works at large scale fairs, I have picked up a few tips of the trade. I have compiled a few of these tricks in a list for newer collectors and for professionals who need a quick review.

Dec 24, 2019By Jacqueline Lewis, BA Art History and Architecture
The Collector’s Guide for the Art Fair
Photo of LA Art Show

For the casual art appreciator, art fairs fill a leisurely afternoon. They function like portable museums, full of new art to view as the event passes through town.

Collectors, on the other hand, experience Art Fairs in a different manner. It is a chance to see inventory from galleries all over the world, all in one place. For long-time aficionados, it may seem like second nature to navigate these fairs and make purchases, but for the budding collector, this experience could be intimidating.



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As a gallerist who frequently works at large scale fairs, I have picked up a few tips of the trade. I have compiled a few of these tricks in a list for newer collectors and for professionals who need a quick review.

Research to find fairs that fit your collection

Art Fairs are vast and varied like the art world itself. Each fair usually has its own category and average price point. Collectors should decide which fair best fits their needs.

Someone who is looking for lower priced objects may want to check out a budding fair like TOAF (The Other Art Fair) while a long time collector with a large budget may be more interested in something like TEFAF Maastrich.

Though there is no limit to how many art fairs you can attend, it is best to do your research beforehand. This will save wasted afternoons and money, especially if you plan on travelling for these events!

Attendees at The Other Art Fair
Attendees at The Other Art Fair

Consider logistics when traveling

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Once you have researched and found the perfect fair, it is time to make travel arrangements. If you live near major art hubs like New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, the fairs often come to your doorstep. If not, it may take some travelling to see that perfect piece.

Art fair websites typically show deals with local hotels and if not, they offer suggestions for the best local stays. This can make it easier to find accommodations and you will often run into fellow colleagues this way.

Check into VIP before buying tickets

Most art fairs have some sort of VIP card system. VIP holders can usually enter and exit the fair at anytime, free of charge. This often includes special events, like receptions and talks, and separate VIP rest areas. VIP cards are for serious collectors and other people in the art industry.

Consider contacting the art fair and informing them that you are a collector who plans to attend. If you have any prior relationship with a gallery at the show you can ask them for a pass as well.

Do not be pushy but there is no harm asking!

Make an effort to attend the opening night reception

VIP Artist Reception at Tribeca’s Contemporary Art Fair
VIP Artist Reception at Tribeca’s Contemporary Art Fair

Though significantly more costly than an average day at the fair, (unless you get one of those VIP cards!) opening receptions are important events for collectors.

Opening receptions are full of serious collectors and others in the art industry. This is when the first sales are made and when the most prestigious works are often purchased. If you are looking for these top works, opening night is a must.

Even if you are not in the market for those works, receptions are a great time to network with other collectors and dealers while sipping on some fine drinks as well.



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Go more than once

It’s usually a good idea to attend the fair a few times to help make your decision. This will give you a chance to make sure you truly want this piece.

The purchase will be something that you will look at for a long time, so make sure you do not get tired of it after a few visits. This will also allow you to look at them with a fresh eye that may notice a previously overlooked issue.

This being said, this bit of advice does not work for top pieces that may sell immediately on

opening night. However, it may help get a better deal on the last day of the fair.

Research the art market

Photo of Mulhous ART FAIR
Photo of Mulhous ART FAIR

Once you have found possible purchases, it is time to do some more research. Check how that artist or subject is selling in the market through auction results. Look for comparable works and use that knowledge to legitimize the asking price.

Though the galleries ultimately decide their own prices, it is important to have market knowledge to avoid over spending.

Talk to the dealers

Mei-Chun Jau, Dallas Art Fair Preview Gala on April 10, 2014.
Mei-Chun Jau, Dallas Art Fair Preview Gala on April 10, 2014.

If you are in a gallery’s booth and find their art worth collecting, introduce yourself. Gallerists and artists are there to talk about their product and provide more information.

This can be as simple as asking for a price list or more in depth like asking them the historical significance of a piece. You should also ask them about their gallery in order to establish that the piece is coming from a reputable source.

Don’t forget your business card

Though you may expect to grab business cards from the galleries, bring a stack of your own cards as well. Often, conversations with sellers lead to great networking opportunities to swap cards.

This will make it simpler for the gallery to contact you later. This will also put you on their radar for receiving catalogues and email blasts. The gallery can reach you with new acquisitions that you may find interesting or simply to invite you to future events.

It is okay to negotiate prices

Photo of IFPDA Print Fair
Photo of IFPDA Print Fair

It is common practice to negotiate prices. If a gallery gives you a price, you can very politely ask them if this is their absolute best offer. Often they will give you a slightly lower price.

You can also just offer a price. Try about 10% less than the asking price and see how that is received. You do not want to offer too low of a price and insult the dealers. Consider citing condition issues or current market values if it makes you more comfortable to explain your lower offer.



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Don’t over do it

If a gallery gives you a firm price, accept it. Some galleries do not negotiate prices or they may already have interested clients. Be polite and accept that it is their business and ultimately, their choice.

This also goes for the amount of time you spend talking to them in the booth. There is nothing wrong with asking questions but try to not take up so much of their time that they miss other potential clients. This is especially important if you do not ultimately purchase from them.

Ask about shipping

Dan Rest, Expo Chicago, 2014, Navy Pier
Dan Rest, Expo Chicago, 2014, Navy Pier

Though it is possible to leave immediately with your new piece, ask how the gallery handles shipping.

Sometimes shipping an artwork out of state can save on sales taxes or fair fees. If the gallery takes the work back to their space, they have a chance to reframe the piece and polish up the glass before shipping as well. Galleries often ship higher priced works for free or at a low price, which can be worth it for the convenience alone.

Continue a relationship with the gallery

If everything went well and you are happy with your purchase, continue the relationship with this gallery. Send a thank you note after you receive your acquisition and let them know if you are searching for anything else.

Returning clients usually have first choice on new pieces and often receive prior notice to new acquisitions. Some galleries even keep an eye on auction houses for whatever your collection is missing.

It is never a bad idea to have a gallery helping you on your collecting journey, they are the experts after all!

Photo of Estampa Contemporary Art Fair
Photo of Estampa Contemporary Art Fair
Author Image

By Jacqueline LewisBA Art History and ArchitectureJacqueline Lewis is a History of Art & Architecture graduate. While studying art, she worked in the research department of The Chicago History Museum and wrote articles for Chicago Gallery News. Now, she is the Assistant Director of a long-standing, prestigious art gallery in Chicago. Throughout the year she works at major art events like the New York IFPDA Print Fair, SOFA and EXPO Chicago. She also writes and publishes articles about the art scene and historical topics.