Thursday, January 30, 2014

How can an artist find out who bought their painting?

This is a response to a letter I received recently.  It concerns how an artist can find out the names of the people who bought a painting sold in an exhibition at an art gallery.

The post covers
  • what is normal practice in terms of sharing the name of buyers
  • commentary on the perspectives of art gallery, art competition and artist
  • alternatives which mean you always know the name of the people who collect your art.
The people and organisations involved have been anonymised for the purposes of this post and consequently the letter has been edited to keep the focus on the topic and not this specific example.

Letter from an artist who sold a painting

Hello Katherine

Having enjoyed your writing for some time now, my guess is that you might be able to throw some light on a question I've got. I suspect both the question and your answer may interest many other artists who read your blog. 

Last year I was lucky enough to not only get a painting into the [art competition] exhibition at [name of gallery] but a red dot appeared within minutes of the start of the preview. 

I'd love to know who bought the painting. A few emails have passed between [the competition/exhibition organisers] and myself in an attempt to find out the name of the buyer. 

My last email to them was fairly specific:
Dear [contact], Thanks for your e mail reply. I had been hoping to speak with you. Perhaps you could give me a telephone call some time. [The art competition] exhibition was the first time I had sold a painting and not known who the buyer was. I'm not sure whether this is because of a policy made by [any of the people or organisations involved] or perhaps whether this is a specific request by the buyer, made at the point of sale, to remain anonymous. If it is a blanket policy applicable to anything sold through your organisation, I would be interested in knowing the reasons. I look forward to hearing from you. [name of artist who sold a painting]

and this was their reply. In fact, this was basically the same reply they'd given me twice before.

Dear [name of artist who sold a painting]
Due to the demands of [sponsoring organisation], we do not give buyer details out.

As I said, we can pass on messages/information, and ask the buyer to contact you should they wish to sign up to a newsletter or request further details about other work.

Part of our reputation is that we do not share information, whether from artists, buyers, clients or with any one else.
I do hope you can understand our reasons for this, and as said we will let you know should the buyer get in touch.

Best wishes,
[name of contact]
I'm not going to pursue it further. Had I been in a mood to, I might have asked:
  • 'Which client are you referring to?';
  • 'Does the client really 'demand' that each buyer remain anonymous to the artist from whom a painting has been bought?'
  • and 'for what reason?'.
I neither produce nor sell a great deal of work so it's always a red letter day when one of my paintings is bought by someone for whom I can not help but feel there is a connection that goes beyond the mere financial.

Perhaps the gallery's reason is that they feel I might do a deal with 'their' client behind their back with regard to future paintings.

In which case, I could almost understand them being reluctant to divulge a name. But, if that's the case, then why not be open about it?

Living in [the back of beyond somewhere in the world], where there is a sense of openness in both landscape and community, this idea of anonymity is something I'm not used to.

Am I being naive? Or perhaps other artists also like to know where their paintings go.
With best wishes,[name of artist who sold a painting last year]

Normal Gallery Practice re. sharing the names of people who buy art

FACT: It's completely normal for galleries to refuse an artist access to the name of the buyer of their artwork

FACT: It's normal for artists not to know the names of the people who bought their artwork - if sold via an exhibition or gallery. (For example, see Getting Collectors' Names From Galleries by Lori Woodward Simons). 

I don't know who bought any of mine - except for commissions and one that was an art society exhibition by a fellow member - who came and told me.

The main reasons that galleries will not share the names of buyers is that they "KNOW" that the following will happen if they do:
  • artists will ignore all aspects of the contract which stipulate what the artist can and cannot do with respect to further sales arising out of the initial sale
  • artists will contact the buyer direct and quite possibly be a nuisance. This may rebound on the gallery if the buyer avoids buying art from them in future.
  • artists will subsequently try to interest potential collectors in further work - behind the back of the gallery - and their business is to protect their clients from being pestered
  • artists will try to bypass galleries when selling work - even to the extent of changing different prices for direct sales
They know this - because this is what happens.  It might be the case that an artist gets blackballed from art galleries in the area if this happens - but it will not be before the damage has been done

Commentary - the gallery's perspective

When an artist agrees to sell your art via a gallery what you are agreeing to do is pay the gallery commission in return for:
  • their expertise in selling art and converting interest into sales
  • access to their database of art collectors - which has been generated over many years of doing business.
The art market is very competitive. A gallery has to protect its "crown jewels" i.e. the mailing list with the names of people who have bought art from them in the past.  
Galleries use the mailing list to promote interest in an exhibition and generate sales.  In general they will have two lists - with one of them being the list relating to repeat buyers who are obviously prime targets for any marketing.

What galleries need to remember these days is that one slip by a gallery assistant might mean that the Gallery emails its mailing list with everybody's email addresses in plain sight
  • the Gallery gives its email list away for free if addresses are listed under 'cc' rather than 'bcc' (and believe it or not I've seen it done!)
  • if it does this the Gallery is in trouble on a second count as it means it has just committed a serious breach of the provisions of the Data Protection Act.  People are entitled to know that their email addresses will be kept secure and safe and not shared with all and sundry - and that entitlement is backed up by the law!
Note: If you're interested in email software for maintaining mailing lists you might find my website Email Newsletter Software - A Guide useful

Some galleries will relax the rule about anonymity for repeat buyers who are interested in meeting the artist. However this is generally only likely to happen if the gallery believes future sales to this client is dependent on a closer relationship with the artist

Commentary - the art competition perspective

The one bit about this story which doesn't "fit" with the conventional explanations regarding galleries is that this exhibition related to an art competition rather than a gallery exhibition.  In effect a space had been hired and sales were processed in the normal way.

  • there is no mailing list to protect
  • there is no gallery who must protect its contact list in order to survive
  • further sales after the event are, in effect, not an issue as such
So why apply normal gallery conventions to what is not a normal gallery exhibition?

I find it very odd.

Commentary - the artist's perspective

Not knowing who bought your artwork might very well feel like giving away your babies to complete strangers!

If this really concerns you stick to giving your artwork away to family and friends who will look after it as if they'd painted it themselves

However if you're selling art you're working in a business world and you need to be aware of how business is typically transacted - irrespective of whether it's right or wrong.

I do agree with my reader that it's very odd that galleries are not much more transparent about the fact they won't tell you who bought your art.

Can anybody think of why this practice should not be much more open and why galleries are not much more transparent as to its existence and the reasons why.

One more point.  Any list of collectors you may have developed prior to agreeing a contract for representation with a gallery should NOT be shared with the gallery.  Otherwise you risk being dropped by the gallery very fast while they continue to "mine" your list of collectors by send ing them information about the work of other artists.

Instead you should continue to maintain your personal relationship with your collectors and take responsibility for the administration and mailing costs for keeping these people up to date with what's happening re exhibitions you are in and where your work can be found.

That's why it's very useful to have a blog which lists work and says where it can be seen.

Alternative Options

Artists essentially have two options

  • communicating their existence so art collectors can find them
  • selling their own art direct to art collectors and cutting out the expertise/expense/mailing list of the "middleman" ie the gallery

How to communicate your existence - so art buyers can find you!

Sometimes art collectors want to contact the artist.  So how are they going to find you.  Think about the options for saying who you are and making it easy for collectors to find you.

First they need to know your name
Results of two polls I'm running on How to sign a painting, drawing or fine art print)
  • Do you have a card about the artwork attached to the back of the painting which spells out the title, the medium, the dimensions and the name of the artist (this is more likely to stay on the back of the work)
  • Do you have a copyright notice fixed to the back of your work? This obviously must include your name and it's reasonable to insist that this is not removed by a gallery.
Next they need to know how to find you
  • Do you have a business card and is one attached to the back of your artwork? (Or is it removed by the gallery. I know one gallery which always does this)
  • Do you have a website and/or blog which comes near the top of a Google search on your name? (or your name and a relevant arty type word)
  • Does that website make it easy for people to contact you direct? (eg does it include your name, your email address - or where to find it - and/or a business telephone number)
  • Do you have a Facebook page for your art which comes up when people do a search on your name?

Selling your own art

It seems to me this practice developed when the gallery system had a stranglehold on the selling of art. However, that's no longer the case.

The artist can now develop their own list of people who buy paintings by selling direct - via open studios, from their website and from their own ecommerce set up online.  Artists can then market direct to their mailing list if the collector has agreed this can happen.

However ask yourself this. Would you share your list of hard won buyers with other artists? 

That's what galleries think too!


There are some major provisos about email marketing
  • an artist cannot assume that they can email buyers without the buyer's specific agreement in writing.  That's why it's important to engage with buyer with enrolment for a mailing list before you sign off a sale.
  • giving out and collecting business cards at an art market or art fair has the potential to generate names you can sign up to a newsletter - IF you ask people and IF they sign a document to say they agree to emails being sent.

What's your view?  How have you tackled this issue?

Do please let me know:

  • whether or not this is a problem for you as an artist and 
  • what you have done as a result
  • any other comments you'd like to make


  1. Excellent clarification, Katherine. DH

  2. Great post ! It happened to me recently that a painting was sold at an art competition. If the organisers had told me about the buyer ( how can I be sure they did pass him/her my message about getting in touch?) I would have asked to borrow the work for my latest show. I am sure that galleries with which one has a long lasting relationship keep records more accurately but I don't really trust organisation that seem mostly staffed by interns or temps.

  3. I think its essential for the artist to put some identification on the back of a picture, especially if it is not signed on the front. In the case of my own work, I write my name , the title and the medium clearly, in capital letters on the back and in the case of my Screen prints I add a printed label which gives a brief description of how the print was made and a short CV. Often a gallery is asked about the method and the printed description saves mistakes being made. I also put a small printed label with my address, email and website , which a gallery can easily remove if they want to....though ,in practice they don`t.

  4. Great article Katherine. Has cleared up a few issues I had inn my own mind. Again I think it often comes down to trust, and how good your relationship is with any one gallery.
    Catherine Ingleby

  5. I had always thought the signature was just a vanity thing but I see now why it is so important. Thanks yet again Katherine for some great insights.

  6. I've had a query from somebody who is asking about finding out about who bought a painting of his wife playing a musical instrument - which he proposes to sell.
    The answer to his question is
    1) the Auction Houses will NOT divulge the name and contact details of anybody who has bought an artwork
    2) If you think the buyer might be interested in the musical instrument as well, write a letter of enquiry and ask the Auction House to pass it on to their buyer. That's more likely to be something they will do. However if proposing a sale you can expect the auction house will also want to take a cut.
    3) in terms of getting a proper appraisal of the value of a musical instrument, you have to pay a proper appraise a professional fee. That's the cost of doing business.
    4) Just because somebody bought a painting of a relative playing an instrument does not mean they bought it for the subject or the instrument. If they've spent a lot of money buying it at auction then It's more likely they bought it because of who painted it.


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