INTRODUCTION TO Sales Within Galleries – The Art of Selling Art

Selling art is perhaps the most glamorous and illustrious career in the art world, and is for many the ultimate profession. The sale of art is, of course, the essential business of the industry and depends on a curious balance of the various values ascribed to an artwork – a luxury asset, a source of cultural capital, an artefact of historical importance, and an object of aesthetic brilliance. As a role requiring a profound understanding of these values, and of the desires of an elite international market, it is no wonder that the selling of art is considered complex and delicate, involving its own form of artistry.


For salespeople working within the structure of galleries as opposed to independently, access to both artworks and clients is facilitated by the reach and reputation of their gallery, for whom they are both representatives and important employees. Successful salespeople with an impressive track record and black book will often assume director titles, and within a highly competitive and high-pressure market, galleries will usually offer generous commission structures that can make up the bulk of a salesperson’s earnings. Within galleries dealing in the secondary market, commission may also be offered for bringing in consignments of artworks to sell.

Bringing in new clients may also be rewarded by commission. Most salespeople work with a small stable of clients on a regular basis, and the acquisitions of just one or two serious collectors may make up the bulk of their sales. To gain the loyalty of such eminent clients, salespeople must learn to understand their tastes, motivations and buying habits, styling themselves as advisors and presenting their patrons with the artworks that best match their aspirations. Many high-profile sales directors in blue-chip galleries are assisted by a client liaison or client developer dedicated purely to the cultivation and maintenance of these relationships.


When recruiting salespeople, galleries seek candidates with an established client network that will follow them; what is most valuable for many businesses is a clientele in a new market, often defined by location. Galleries seeking to expand their international reach and tap into growing markets will look to bring on candidates that speak the language – both literally and metaphorically – of other cultures, so a client base that spans multiple countries is a fantastic asset for a salesperson.

As the digital revolution continues to reshape the industry, the impact of social media and ecommerce has been evident across all galleries, allowing their visibility and reach to expand in a transformation that has perhaps been felt most keenly by smaller, primary market galleries whose more affordable prices appeal to a new demographic of collectors. Within such businesses, the need for close client liaison is replaced by the need to manage a larger number of remote buyers who will make acquisitions without viewing in person, thus reformulating the role of an art salesperson to something more akin to sales in other luxury retail industries.


To be entrusted with a gallery’s most profitable clients is a privilege most often earned through working one’s way up through the gallery structure. Within larger galleries, positions that support sales directors – assistant, sales assistant or client liaison – provide an excellent springboard for a sales career of one’s own, and the opportunity to learn about sales and clients under the mentorship of a seasoned professional. Smaller galleries can also be an excellent arena in which to develop a budding sales career – without the hierarchy of larger businesses. And because they often cater to a more accessible market, such galleries may be more willing to allow less established salespeople access to clients and the opportunity to sell.

In an industry in which products are of such high monetary value, it is no wonder that closing sales requires a shrewd and bespoke approach, and is associated with the glamorous and international lifestyle of the rarefied group of collectors who can afford to buy at the top end of the market. Galleries provide successful salespeople with the reputation, artworks and clients they need in order to make deals within a highly competitive and elite market. At a lower level they can offer a fantastic training ground for budding sales staff. The selling of art requires an excellent understanding both of the value of artworks themselves, and of the individual tastes, lifestyles and desires of those who collect them.


Samuel Zeller