The process of buying works at art fairs involves some largely unwritten rules, and collectors have to learn to navigate the rituals through experience.
Pamela Hornik, a philanthropist and arts advocate based in Palo Alto, Calif., learned that the hard way when she began trying to buy art at fairs a dozen years ago. She collects with her husband, David Hornik, a founding partner of the venture capital firm Lobby Capital.
Ms. Hornik said she realized that, although the aisles at art fairs like this week’s Art Basel Miami Beach are ostensibly replete with works for sale, “In reality, many of those works are presold.”
It was the beginning of her learning curve.
“When you fall in love with a piece, and you don’t have access to it, that’s aggravating,” said Ms. Hornik, who in the last few months has acquired works by Deborah Roberts, Amoako Boafo and Alison Elizabeth Taylor.
She took it as a message that she was not deemed worthy of the big leagues yet.
Ms. Hornik added: “I was very naïve. When I was a kid, I collected Steiff stuffed animals. You didn’t have to present a résumé to buy those.”
The practice of preselling varies in degrees among dealers who show at fairs, but it is widespread.
“Most of the work I get quote ‘at a fair’ has been acquired before the fair starts,” said Pete Scantland, a collector in Columbus, Ohio, who planned to be in Miami this week.
It may seem counterintuitive at first: If a work is taken, why show it at a commercial art fair in the first place?
For one, the presentations for an elite art-world audience function as exhibitions to burnish the reputations of galleries and artists.
Another factor is “offsetting risk,” said Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel. Galleries simply have to worry less about relying on potential buyers coming through the door at a fair.
The dealer David Zwirner, referring to September’s edition of Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, said, “We presold a lot of work, not knowing what the fair would bring us. We’d rather be safe than sorry.” (Mr. Zwirner’s Art Basel Miami Beach booth will show works by Marcel Dzama, Barbara Kruger, Shio Kusaka, Oscar Murillo, Wolfgang Tillmans and Lisa Yuskavage, among others.)
The truth is that at the elite level of Mr. Zwirner and his stable of well-known artists, there simply is not enough art to sell to everyone who can afford to buy it.
“It’s a function of scarcity,” said Jessica Silverman, a dealer in San Francisco.
And in that case, dealers have to choose who gets the work. Frequently they decide to “honor and respect the collectors who keep them alive the rest of the year,” as Mr. Spiegler put it.
Mr. Zwirner noted that though it might annoy or even enrage eager fairgoers, his priority was his top clients.
“Managing expectations is an art,” he said. “You’ll be successful in this industry if you master that. If you don’t, you won’t.”
Some of the works that are considered already sold as a fair opens are actually just on reserve, Mr. Spiegler noted, meaning that they are promised to a collector even if the transaction has yet to be completed.
For her part, Ms. Silverman, who is also showing at Art Basel Miami Beach this week, said she knew weeks ago which works would be on view but off limits in her main booth, the largest yet that she has had at the fair.
“One big sculpture by Rose Simpson, I know who it’s selling to,” she said referring to Ms. Simpson’s “Truss” (2021), which stands more than six feet tall. A painting she will show by another artist — “Facing Self” by Woody De Othello — has “30 people waiting for it,” she said. But it will still be on view.
Coming off the coronavirus pandemic’s lack of in-person art-viewing opportunities, “I have found that some of our artists are asking, ‘How long will my work be seen for?’” Ms. Silverman said of the exposure in a prestigious fair environment. “It’s not just about sales.”
Some works by an artist new to Ms. Silverman’s roster, Rashaad Newsome, will be available for purchase at the fair. One work in the presentation will be the 2020 collage “Isolation.”
Striking a balance between for-sale and spoken-for will mean that Ms. Silverman can say yes to at least some fairgoers.
“They want to feel special,” she said. “You have to make sure no egos are damaged in the process.”
For galleries, fairs are at least partly about encountering new collectors. “You never know who you’re going to meet,” Ms. Silverman said.
From the perspective of event organizers, Mr. Spielger said, promising too many works in advance would “undermine the purpose of the fair.”
Mr. Scantland, 42, the founder and chief executive of Orange Barrel Media, said that he had been collecting seriously for only about five years, focusing on “artists of my generation.” His past Art Basel Miami Beach purchases have included pieces by Allison Janae Hamilton, Maia Cruz Palileo and Yoan Capote.
Early on, Mr. Scantland, like Ms. Hornik, was getting aced out for works he wanted. “It’s intimidating,” he said. “There are no obvious instructions for this world.”
Now, though, he is a major museum patron. This year, the Scantland family — including his wife, Michelle, along with his parents, his siblings and their spouses — made a gift to the Columbus Museum of Art that includes 27 works, on view now, as well as $2 million for a special endowment.
Such philanthropy is likely part of what has moved Mr. Scantland forward in the line to buy sought-after works, given that dealers want their artists to be in the collections of top institutions.
The same is true for Ms. Hornik, who has now had the experience of walking into an art fair and seeing a work that she already knows will be going into her collection. That kind of moment provokes a very specific emotion, she said.
“It’s not, ‘Ha-ha, I got it and you didn’t,’” Ms. Hornik said. “It’s more like a sigh of relief.”
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