Help Desk

Help Desk: Crazy Collector

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

We recently sold a piece at an art fair, a photograph, the sale being the second of this particular edition. Because it was the second edition, we needed to have it produced from scratch and then printed/mounted/framed. All the production was paid for by us as a courtesy. After informing the collector it would take a couple of weeks, we were recently bombarded with complaints from said collector that we were taking him for a ride and that he wanted a refund, because of how long it was taking to get the piece made professionally. Collector then went on a witch hunt, in which he called Amex to report us, tweeted that people should “beware” of our gallery, stormed into our gallery to scream at us, as well as abused us in e-mails. We eventually decided to return the money, even though there is a clear ALL SALES FINAL disclosure on all our sale documents, just to get rid of the negative distraction.

I guess my question here is how do we avoid this in the future? We are a small gallery, and these fairs are more than we can afford, but we have to participate to try and sell the work. Any words of advice for our fledgling initiative?

Allow me to rephrase your question: We run a small gallery. Recently, a would-be collector went bananas and things ended badly. How do we avoid dealing with a person like this in the future? And here’s the short answer: if I knew how to keep clear of crazy people, I’d be a rich woman. But since the art world is filled with lunatics*—both loveable and malevolent—and complete avoidance probably isn’t an option unless you move to a hermit’s shack, let’s talk about the things you might do to circumvent a situation like this in your life to come.

John Baldessari. Man with Blue Shape, 1991; photograph, 77.5 x 122 cm

At the risk of seeming unsympathetic, I’m going to remind you that sometimes crazy takes two. Take a moment to assess the situation honestly. Ask yourself: Did this man walk away with all the information he needed? In my experience, one of the main reasons that a person flies off the handle is that he has one set of expectations based on assumptions, and his associate has another set of expectations based on different assumptions. And this is the key part: their expectations may overlap—leading everyone to believe that they are on the same page—but the assumptions underlying those expectations are inconsistent, and sometimes that gets everyone into trouble. So I wonder: how effectively did you convey information to this man about his wait time? Did you casually mention that it would be “a couple of weeks” before he received his print? Or did you mutually agree on a delivery date, put it in writing, and then communicate any changes? If you say “a couple of weeks” as a loose estimate, and he hears “exactly two weeks,” you can see that this is where the problem is going to start.

And what happened when this guy started yelling at everyone? Did you greet his onslaught with a rabbit-in-the-headlights look (my go-to reaction), or did you talk to him calmly, go over the situation to see where the two of you went off the rails, and then work toward a mutually agreed upon solution? If he thought you did something wrong and you thought you did nothing wrong (all based on those pesky assumptions), then probably your first reaction was something along the lines of We told you it was going to be a couple of weeks, you crazy bastard. Most of us, when faced with an Anger Monster, just want to defend ourselves or flee. It’s a natural (and not necessarily unhealthy) feeling. I’m guessing that you did not say something really direct like “I hear what you are saying, and I understand why you are angry. It seems that we’ve had a miscommunication. What would you like to have happen next?”

John Baldessari. Two Whales (with People), 2010; screenprint on paper, 32.25 x 23.60 inches, edition of 50

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you did all that. You clearly communicated all dates and attempted to work toward a solution in a very deep way, and this guy still went cuckoo. Ultimately, you can only control your own actions, and some people will not be placated no matter how calm your voice is; you have to decide when to cut your losses, and that’s exactly what you did. The way to come out on top of this mess is to learn from this for next time and to not dwell on it in an unhealthy way.

Let me be specific: unhealthy would be three months of muttering to yourself over a nightly glass of whiskey while mentally rehashing the ugliest parts of these interactions; healthy would be analyzing the situation to assess the efficacy of your communications and figuring out a new strategy for the future. This takes conscious effort, honesty, and maybe some brainstorming with trusted colleagues.

Going forward, the best way to avoid this kind of conflict is to make sure that you are transmitting information as effectively as you can. Go over the interactions and see where you could have said or done something different, something that might have alleviated confusion. Go over your gallery paperwork and see where you could strengthen the language or add space for additional information that would clarify the gallery’s needs and timelines. And don’t forget to go the bar with some fellow gallery owners and perform a dramatic retelling for your (surely appreciative) audience—because time and catharsis heal all wounds. Good luck!

*Indeed, the world is filled with deranged people and there’s no shortage of them in any discipline.