Tuesday, September 16, 2008


For more than 30 years I have been in the tribal art business, of which the primary activity is purchasing objects from a variety of sources and then re-selling them to collectors, institutions, or other retailers. It would seem that the guidelines for buying and selling tribal art (or any kind of art) would be obvious, but it has been my experience this is not always the case. This is especially true with new collectors, who may be unaware of the subtle details. I have also experienced some issues with “seasoned” buyers who occasionally fail to properly follow through on a purchase.

Because these issues come up on a regular basis, I want to make an attempt to clarify what I believe is the proper business relationship between buyers and sellers. These guidelines do not apply to every transaction and not every seller or buyer will agree with my view, but I believe it is important to make these points anyway. This set of guidelines is not inclusive and others may have suggestions or corrections, which I welcome.

Terminology note: because professional dealers buy as much as they sell and collectors often sell items from their collections, to keep this simple: anyone offering pieces for sale will be identified as a “seller” and anyone making a purchase will be identified as a “buyer”.

Buyers should be aware that professional sellers are regularly asked for information about items they have for sale. This is part of the job and most sellers are comfortable answering these questions, within reason. These days, most professional sellers have websites, so naturally inquiries via email are routine. Unfortunately, it is clear that many of these inquiries are not from people seriously interested in buying a piece, but more of a fishing expedition for prices, perhaps as a comparison of value to pieces in their own collections, or to obtain free information. It really takes up a lot of valuable time and energy for sellers to differentiate between the serious and the merely curious. The bottom line is that buyers should understand that there needs to be some limitations on these inquires and be sensitive to the amount of time one might expect a seller to provide additional images and information.

All items are subject to availability, so the buyer needs to make it clear if they want a particular item and are willing to abide by the terms of the seller. A buyer can ask for an item to be put on “hold”, but should not expect the seller to do this for more than a few days, unless very specific arrangements have been made. The buyer needs to communicate their intentions as soon as possible, otherwise, the seller has the right to offer it elsewhere or sell the item to the first buyer that has made a commitment.

Prices may change so buyers should not expect them to remain the same if they ask about an item at a later time. Prices are like the stock market, one day it might be up and another day it might be down. Sellers have the right to change their prices based on evolving market conditions or their personal financial needs. Obviously, it would be unfair for a seller to raise the price of an item in mid-negotiation, but at any other time, it is acceptable.

With all of the above in mind, buyers should pay attention to these basic guidelines:

If the buyer has any questions or concerns they should ask these before making their final decision. Again, keeping in mind the amount of time used to do so.

When asking about an item or requesting a price, it is always polite to follow up regardless of the decision. The seller takes time to answer these questions and of course wants to know if a potential buyer is really interested in making the purchase. There could be others asking about that same item and it is extremely helpful to know which inquiries are serious.

It is usually acceptable for buyers to negotiate on a purchase. Most sellers are willing to work terms with a buyer, so it never hurts to ask. For example, a buyer might ask the seller for a reasonable discount on the price, or possibly to cover shipping costs or the sales tax (if it applies). The buyer might ask for a payment plan. One or two of these requests might be acceptable, but it would be unfair to ask a seller for a discount and then ask for time to make payments. It should also be clear that not all sellers are willing to give terms and even ones that normally do so might not with special or unusually rare items.

The buyer should be clear about the payment method they would like to use (check, money order, wire transfer, credit card, cash, etc) and when they will pay. The type of payment method and timing of the payment usually has a bearing on the amount a seller may be willing to discount. Unless arrangements are made in advance, the seller usually expects the payment immediately.

This last point is important as most professional sellers are continually setting up other purchases and often make these deals based on their expectation of cash flow. If a buyer agrees to make a purchase and sets a time to make that payment, the seller fully expects that payment to come at or before that time, so they have those funds available to run their business. If a buyer runs into some unexpected trouble making that payment, they are obligated to communicate with the seller as soon as possible to make other arrangements.

The buyer is expected to make the full payment, including shipping costs (if necessary), before taking possession of the item. Exceptions may be made for buyers well-known to the seller, but only if the seller is willing to do so. Getting items on approval without payment is the exception, not the norm, so it should not be expected.

Assuming an item has been shipped; once it arrives the buyer should acknowledge receipt immediately, noting any condition issues. It would be helpful if the buyer would let the seller know as soon as possible if they are keeping the piece or returning it. Most sellers give time to the buyer to make their final decision (usually no more than a week), but the sooner the seller knows if the sale is final, the better.

If a buyer does decide to return an item, they should do so in a timely manner and make sure the item is returned in the same condition it arrived. The buyer cannot expect the seller to give a full refund if the item is returned damaged.

Most sellers will give a full refund for returned items, less the cost of shipping, if done so in the agreed upon time period. After that time period has elapsed the seller may opt to offer credit or exchange. Buyers should be fully aware of a seller’s return policy before making their purchase, so there is no misunderstanding at a later date. It has been my experience that most sellers are cooperative when it comes to returns, but they do have to protect themselves from simple “buyer’s remorse” or items that have been unfairly discredited by other less knowledgeable or unscrupulous sellers.

Professional sellers are always appreciative when buyers make their lives a bit easier. Some enthusiasm and passion for the art, good communication, a quick decision, and on time payments are all we really ask for. If the buyer makes the transaction easy for the seller it is virtually a guarantee the seller will go out of their way to make things easier for the buyer, especially on future sales.

That said, sellers are also obligated to know their material and provide accurate information. They should be fair in their assessment of each piece and offer buyers an honest evaluation of relative quality, rarity, condition, and value. They should provide clear title and provide verifiable provenance when possible. They should clearly state any condition problems and note major restorations or repairs. They should provide a written guarantee of authenticity. They should state a clear return policy. The seller should be responsible for packing items properly and ship immediately upon receipt of funds. And finally, they should allow for a reasonable time period for the buyer to make a final decision on any purchase, especially with sales made by photographs or via the internet.

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