The Eye of the Beholder
David's office looks like the interior of an English country house: oriental carpets, antiques, and walls covered in pale blue silk damask. "This environment is intended to resemble the types of interiors in which my clients live," said David, a dealer in Old Master paintings and drawings at a gallery in New York City.
For window shoppers, the gallery maintains street-level showrooms. Collectors willing to drop from $250,000 to $12 million ring the unmarked doorbell and are shown upstairs to private viewing rooms to see objects selected just for them. "We find extraordinary works of art for clients and help them develop their taste," said David. "That's what makes this business fun."
As long as he can remember, David wanted to work with paintings and drawings. He earned a Ph.D. in art history, but notes that degrees count for little. "The keys to art dealing are quality, rarity, and value. You can only recognize those if you have looked at a lot of things."
And Ph.D. or not, you start low. "Many people in this field have an independent income and will do anything to get in the door," he said. "If you are not willing to volunteer, pick another line of work."
David began as a museum intern and then moved within the museum to answering phones, working in storage, and doing research. The experience convinced him he'd prefer the world of the art dealer, where the first emphasis is on aesthetics, not on historical importance - and where an owner, not a board of trustees, makes acquisition decisions. "A gallery can move much faster because it's so small. Five full-time employees is a big operation," he said.
Soon after, David moved to New York and networked for almost year to get his job. Now he's responsible for finding exceptional works of art for his gallery to acquire. It's hard: top-quality inventory must be sought after because it rarely walks in the door. A typical week finds David reading books and sale catalogs, talking with other galleries and museum contacts, attending auctions, and keeping his ear "finely attuned to deaths and monetary problems." In change lies opportunity, he notes.
Downsides? The patience and negotiation skills required to cope with the temperaments of the very rich and the long road to the job. Another is the wealth gap. "I started at about $30,000 annually plus 7.5 percent commission. However much my clients like me, I will never really be part of their world." He stops to gaze at a painting hanging in a gilt frame. "Yet how many people get to do what I do?"
If you've got a good eye and perseverance, think about working for an art gallery…and dream on!