Who buys a car without at least taking it for a test drive? How the car feels while you drive it, how you feel sitting in it, are considerations almost as important as whatever Consumer Reports concludes about its reliability and performance. The art trade now frequently offers its own version of the test drive, permitting prospective buyers to take an artwork home with them, to see if a piece fits into their décor or just fits into their life.
Collectors “almost always have to see it in their home,” said Manhattan-based American art dealer Debra Force. “If they are on the fence—for instance, if it is a couple and one [person] likes it more than the other—living with it for a few days helps in the decision.” She permits collectors as long as a week to make up their minds, which might seem a bit risky (try asking a car dealer to make a test drive into a weeklong affair) but it tends to work out for her. “Collectors are usually sure they want it” but need some 3-D reassurance. What fits in the cavernous spaces of a Chelsea art gallery, for example, might look cramped in a normal home. The issue for most is whether or not “it fits the space and ambience” of their home.
Prospective buyers say that living with a work of art, even briefly, removes the pressure of having some salesperson looking over your shoulder, asking “Do you like it? Do you like it?” Few collectors seem worried about matching their sofa—but they do worry about matching their other artworks and like to see if the new purchase will be cohesive in their collections. And, these days, many art purchases are big financial decisions that require consideration.
The reason most art dealers are willing to do collectors the favor of lending them art ‘on spec’ is simple: It works. The odds are, the collector buys.
It may be particularly important to test drive so-called “difficult” art: works with erotic, gory, confrontational or depressing subject matter. After all, art is supposed to be challenging but no one wants to be challenged every time he or she sets foot in the living room.
Approximately 10 percent of the sales made by the Maxwell Davidson Gallery in New York occur after works have left the gallery “on approval,” said Maxwell Davidson IV, and the majority of those items are the more expensive pieces (“in the six and seven figures”)—and especially sculpture. “You need to walk around sculpture, see the scale of it in a room, see if you are going to bump into it,” he said. Paintings, on the other hand, “are for flat walls. It either fits or it doesn’t.”
The gallery allows prospective buyers “between an afternoon and a long weekend” to decide whether or not to buy a piece (“If you can’t make up your mind in two or three days, it’s not likely to happen”), and Mr. Davidson said that those collectors permitted to take works on approval are known to the gallery either as buyers or regular visitors, and others are checked out by contacting other dealers from whom they have purchased artwork. “We don’t send out things willy-nilly.”
One of Ms. Force’s regular clients, John Moak, a lawyer and arbitrator of insurance and reinsurance disputes, said he tries out the pieces he buys most of the time, noting that “I live in a two-bedroom apartment in the Upper East Side and haven’t got a lot of room to put things. To hang one thing, I have to move something else, rearrange things.” On occasion, he has returned something, but “more often than not, I keep it.”
Indeed, the reason most dealers are willing to do collectors the favor is simple: It works. The odds are high collectors eventually buy what they’ve borrowed. “If they go to the trouble to arrange to have a work sent to their home, they’re already 90 percent ready to buy,” said Adrian Turner, senior director at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. Those buyers who ask for works on approval, he said, often are too busy to get to the gallery and only have seen the pieces in pictures sent by email from the gallery. People need to see that the colors in the photograph are the same as in the actual painting.
From time to time, some dealers note, collectors ask for two works to be brought to their homes in order to see which fits better. Those buyers are still 100 percent ready to make a purchase, but the decision over which one perhaps brings the success rate to 50 percent in those instances.
Of course, there’s the fine print and the arrangements: Prospective buyers usually pay for shipping unless the gallery is nearby, at which point the gallery’s art handlers may run it up to a client’s house. (Shipping costs are apt to revert to the gallery if the collector decides to buy the artwork.) The gallery also covers the cost of insurance while the artwork is in transit or on loan to the buyer, although the collector is given a certificate of loss-payee, which identifies the gallery as the claimant in the event of any damage.
Most insurance claims for damage to art result from something happening while in transit, not at the borrower’s home. Overall, dealers who send out objects on approval have been lucky, so they say. “I have had some frame damage, but nothing significant,” Debra Force said.
Indeed, most of the dealers contacted by the Observer claimed they had had no bad experiences. “We’ve never had anything come back damaged, never had a problem of any sort,” said Ed Deluca, director of D.C. Moore Gallery in Manhattan. Most… but not all. Boston gallery owner Barbara Krakow recalled someone who “seemed pretty sophisticated,” wanting to take a small work to show his wife, because it was her birthday. That guy and the artwork disappeared into the hinterlands, she said. The Forum Gallery in Manhattan once allowed a Greenwich, Conn., collector to take a painting on approval, who refused to return or pay for it, resulting in a lawsuit by the gallery and the need to have a state marshal go with a court order to retrieve it.
New York gallery owner Jack Tilton said that he “had a problem once, when I was young and inexperienced. A judge from Detroit took a work on approval and tried to screw me. He reneged on the deal we had worked out, deciding that he should pay less, and I had to fly out to Detroit to get the work and bring it back. That’s not the only time. I’ve had people who take works and don’t want to pay. The wealthier the person, the more abusive he can be. It can be a frigging nightmare.” Still, Mr. Tilton allows prospective buyers—“regular clients, approved clients, you can’t let some Joe Shmoe have it”—try out works in their homes.
The bottom line is: dealers are surprisingly willing to lend art, briefly. So, for those with a sizable buying decision to sleep on, it might make sense to have a sleepover.