by Carolyn Edlund
Are you currently consigning your work, or thinking about doing so? Read this first.
I recently had a conversation with a young artist who was just starting to sell her work. She had traveled to New York City for a fair, but had little in the way of sales. At the event, she was approached by a couple who owned a gallery and expressed interest in having her consign her art with them. Subsequently, she delivered about 40 pieces of merchandise to their store.
We spoke about the fact that she had made sales through the gallery, and I asked her if she had been paid on time.
“Well, I have to make a phone call every few months in order to get a check,” she admitted. “My work has sold and I’ve gotten some money, but they are pretty erratic.”
“What about your contract?” I asked.
She looked at me blankly, unsure about the question. Clearly this artist had no idea that there should be a written agreement when work is consigned. I knew the gallery owners who had her work, and their reputation was a bit sketchy. She acknowledged that they did not communicate with her and that she didn’t know what they were charging for her art or much of anything else.
Did the gallery owners know about consignment contracts? Of course they did. They just didn’t choose to offer one to this artist – which allowed them to pretty much do whatever they wanted with her art, pay her whatever they chose and whenever they chose. She had delivered her work out of trust that hadn’t been earned.
I explained to the artist that this verbal agreement was worth the paper it was written on. She needed to get a written contract immediately, or to retrieve her work and get paid for the inventory that was sold. She lived many hours from New York City, which made things worse because she basically had no control at all.
Sadly, this scenario is all too common. I am continually surprised when I speak with artists, even very experienced ones, who have a handshake agreement when it comes to consignment. I’ve heard comments such as “I know them well” or “I’ve always been paid” which still makes me shake my head in wonder. Even if the gallery owner is a friend of yours, a signed contract clearly states everyone’s obligations, spelling out terms and helping to avoid misunderstandings. Friends should encourage contracts for mutual protection.
What happens if work is damaged or stolen? Or the store goes out of business? In some states, a retailer in bankruptcy can have consigned merchandise held as assets to pay creditors, which means that even though you are still the owner of your work, you could lose it. Contract terms can save you from that situation.
If the gallery claims they don’t have a contract, then present your own for them to sign. Harriete Estel Berman has a sample consignment contract with explanations of terms in her Professional Guidelines which is a good place to start. She has kindly offered this free of charge to the creative community. It can be printed as a Word document or in .pdf format.
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