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How to Buy Art at Expo Chicago

Tony Karman, the art fair’s president and director, gives tips on negotiating with the dealers.

Expo Chicago president Tony Karman.
Expo Chicago president Tony Karman.   Photo: Courtesy of Audia

Expo Chicago, now in its third year, brings 140 international galleries and cutting-edge contemporary art to Navy Pier (this year’s show will be held September 18–21; go to expochicago.com for more information). Chicago asked president and director Tony Karman about the nitty-gritty details of purchasing artwork at this high-power extravaganza. 

Are the prices listed and accessible?

Sometimes the prices are listed next to the artworks, but that is up to the dealer. It’s always been a bit of a barrier, that visitors can’t or shouldn’t ask the price, but I encourage people to take the initiative and to ask. You really can and should ask .

Are the prices negotiable?

Negotiations should be done with great respect for the gallery and the artist who is going to benefit from the sale. In some cases there is no room because there is great demand for the work. Like any work for sale, not just artwork, the price that will be quoted is the price that the dealer recognizes is a fair market value for that work.

Can I ask for a discount?

Again, that varies. There’s a respectful way to ask, and there may be a respectful response no. The proper etiquette is to build a relationship with the dealer. Things come naturally in the course of the transaction—I hate to use that word. My belief is that an individual should acquire a work they love and respond to.

How does one approach a dealer?

I encourage everyone not to be fearful of engaging the dealers. If they’re in another conversation, respectfully wait or come back, or seek that individual out at another time. They’re there to provide context to you. Everything is on the table to be asked.

What’s a good opening line to engage a dealer?

Tell me about this artist. Also, will they have artwork in an upcoming exhibition?

If I like an artwork, can I think on it for a few days?

There’s a risk in that. It may not be available in two or three days. If you have a budget in mind, and you’ve asked the questions you want to ask, and if you’re serious enough, then ask if you can put a hold on it, and if there is a time frame for that hold. Dealers will work with an individual based on that.

If I purchase an artwork, do I walk away with it at that moment?

Most likely not. It all depends on how it’s installed. It’s possible, but most of the time the transfer happens after the fair. The dealer will arrange for proper crating and packaging.

What day or time of the fair is the best time to buy?

The sweetest spot is to come to the opening or first day and take a broad survey of everything on the floor. Several visits to the fair allows for longer discussions. But impulse is wonderful, too. If you see a work you really want, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger, and be proud of that decision.

Do dealers lower their prices at the end of the fair?

No, typically not at the level of art we are presenting.

Will a dealer allow me to buy a blue-chip artwork by a very famous artist?

Every dealer is in the interest of building a relationship with seasoned and novice collectors. For a rare work, they want to learn a little bit more about you, what you’re collecting and what your plans are. For some massively sought after contemporary works available at this fair, ultimately it’s up to the dealer to decide.

How much of the purchase price does the artist get?

Typically it’s 50% but that varies. It’s an agreement made between the dealer and the artist.

Can I call up the artist, and buy from their studio, so they can get 100% of the sale?

There’s a reason why an artist is represented by a gallery. The dealer is acting as an agent, protecting them, and putting a great deal of effort and money making sure this artist has access to collectors and museum curators. Any professional artist would respect that code of honor. The actual sale needs to take place between the dealer and the collector.

Why should I buy art in Chicago and not in Miami?

There’s a great legacy and tradition here. For over twenty years Chicago hosted the only major international fair in North and South America. More importantly, being able to acquire art here is a wonderful way to tell a story that you purchased it in your hometown.

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