By James H. Nottage
April, 2009 Smoke Signals
I ran into a dealer friend a while back. He told me about a client he had worked with for years, helping the collector to acquire rare and expensive Western art. It seems the client has no heirs, and that when he died he wanted to just give his collection back to the dealer to sell for his own benefit. Can you imagine such a close relationship between a dealer and a collector? As a further reflection of their friendship, the dealer actually helped the collector to identify a museum that would be pleased to receive the collection.
If you are new to collecting, it can be difficult to know who to trust. You see dealers at shows, you see their ads in magazines, and you hear talk about them within the collecting fraternity. Which dealers are honest and how do you know who might be most helpful to you in developing your collection? Here are a few suggestions that you might keep in mind.
First and foremost, you need to develop your expertise about whatever you are collecting. You need to be your own expert. Make it a priority to read everything you can get your hands on, build a strong library in your area of interest, visit museums and other collections. Absorb everything you can. Develop relationships with museum curators, authors, artists, and other collectors. Networking is one of your greatest allies when searching for information or verification about items being considered for your collection. Know about the market you collect in. Study auction results closely, observe prices on items in a shop or booth. Know not only what something should be worth, but know what you are willing to pay.
Second, listen to those in your network about their experiences with dealers. Find out about who they trust, learn which dealers they think are knowledgeable, and which dealers they may have had bad experiences with.
Third, verify what you hear from others by your contact with dealers. Visit their shops, introduce yourself at shows, and observe. My favorite dealers are the ones who are truly passionate about what they sell. You get the idea that their goods are not just commodities. They enjoy sharing their knowledge, listening to what you say and if you buy something from them they are happy that a great pair of spurs, a beaded knife sheath, an historical photograph or a rare book are going to a good home. Observe other buyers talking with the dealers. Do they negotiate prices and if so, are they consistently friendly and straight forward? Does the dealer assure you of quality and his ethics by offering money back guarantees on what he sells.
Do not be afraid to eavesdrop. Listen closely. In my experience, the best and most reliable dealers are the ones who do not bad mouth or demean customers, other dealers or the goods being offered by other dealers. It is less about the deal than it is their passion for the goods they have and the way they treat others. They can be of great help to you. They learn what you like and are interested in. They will look for and hold items that you might enjoy and purchase.
The best advise, I feel I can give? Make lots of friends. Do not rely on just one dealer. Develop good business relationships with many. Remember that many of them are low volume with slim margins for profit. Treat them as well as you want to be treated. If you are blessed and develop fast friendships, all the better.
Chief Curatoral Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, IN
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage
© Copyright 2009 - James W. Nottage