Putting Your Art on Sale

All artwork must go!
Select pieces up to 50% off!
No reasonable offers will be refused!

Sounds like the giant art sale at the airport hotel, huh? Loud sales proclamations just don’t work well when selling fine art. Mentioning SALE seems to cheapen the art.
But we do know that even high-end galleries offer discounts to valued collectors as well as to museums. So why can’t artists have their own sales? You can with the right strategies in place.

Michael Newberry, Himalayan Flight, oil on linen
©2010 Michael Newberry, Himalayan Flight. Oil on linen, 36 x 48 inches.

First, consider any ramifications your sale would have on relationships with gallerists, collectors, or retailers. Plan accordingly with the following 8 tips in mind.
1. Have a reason for the sale.
It can be an anniversary, holiday, birthday, or moving sale, but it should be tied to a reason or event. For example, my sale starting today is a close-out on audio products I will no longer sell.
2. Be very clear about what is on sale and what isn’t on sale.
Will all of your work be on sale? All work prior to 2008? Anything smaller than a breadbox? All reproductions? Double- and triple-check the language you use in your sales message to ensure there is no room for misunderstanding.
3. Be honest and sincere with the language you use.
There is no need to hype the sale of your artwork. Remind people of the value they are getting during this one-time offer. The value in my audio sale is 29-38% off all audio products.
4. Create a sense of urgency.
If your sale doesn’t have an ending, there’s no reason for people to act quickly. A typical online sale is about 3-5 days. You’ll need a longer time period if it requires opening up your studio to guests.
5. Extend your offer to your collectors first.
Your collectors have already purchased similar works from you at a higher price. They might not be happy to learn that they could have gotten it at a lower price if they had waited. Make your collectors happy by sending them a personal letter well in advance of your starting sale date and offering them first choice (and maybe even a little extra discount). Perhaps you call it a Pre-Sale for Collectors Only.
Rather than using email for your collectors’ announcement, opt for a distinctive letter sent through the postal system. This will make your collectors feel special.
6. Set up a special sales page on your website or blog.
This is critical! There are too many distractions on your website home page. By directing traffic to a special sales page on your site, you can better facilitate the next action. See my sales page at http://artbizcoach.com/sale
7. Don’t hold too many sales.
If you’re announcing sales frequently, buyers will know there’s probably another one coming up around the bend. They’ll wait for your next sale to purchase from you.
8. Provide a call to action.
Don’t assume people will know what to do. Tell them where to click, whom to call, or how to email you for more information. For instance, if you want to take advantage of my closeout audio sale, go to http://artbizcoach.com/sale.html
Don’t forget that the sale ends at midnight ET on Friday, July 16. [outdated link]
FINAL WORD: There’s no reason you can’t have a sale, but you want to make sure you’ve covered all of the details before it’s announced.

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21 thoughts on “Putting Your Art on Sale”

  1. I’m someone who’s always struggled to ask people to pay full price for a painting. I’ve been known to offer “friends and family” discounts to almost anyone I’ve known for more than 5 minutes. I’ve concluded, however, that putting on a “sale” is one way I shoot myself in the foot.
    This is painful and I don’t want to do this any longer. I’m working hard to value my work appropriately and refrain from selling it at lower prices. I definitely understand the impulse, feel it and wish well anyone who wants to follow it. But my experience shows me I don’t need to do this anymore.
    I recently offered discounted works at an open studio moving sale. I invited only people who’d purchased work from me previously and close friends. The deep discounts were for older work only, pieces I’d decided I didn’t want to haul across the country. It was a good excuse to cull the excess of work I’d outgrown.
    I did have other non-discounted paintings available, however, and sold two of these. Most of the income for the day in fact came from the sale of the regularly priced work. I realized that when given the choice, people who like my work will actually pay more for something of better quality than for a sale item. But more important, I feel better selling work I’ve chosen to value more.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Ellie: That’s perfect! I think you went about it in exactly the right way. I’m so glad to hear that you know and appreciate the value of your work. You also set strong parameters for the discounts–and sold some work at full price. Congratulations. Classy.

  2. Great advice! I actually just finished my “spring cleaning” sale. I was very careful to show only work I felt good about, but also pieces that nobody had purchased before at full price. My reason was, since taking a break from the art festival circuit, I have a lot of inventory that seems to be taking up space not only in my studio, but also in my head. It was fairly successful and now it’s over and I feel freer to work on new images.

  3. I have to take strong exception with your premise about having a sale.
    Quite frankly I think your suggestion that an artist should consider a reduced sale price of their works is misguided and in my experience, the kiss of death to the credibility an artist has generated over time.
    I have seen this time and time again, where desperation causes an artist to conclude that price is the greatest motivating factor/roadblock to making sales and they try to rectify the situation by having a sale. Now if the artist is selling their art as a commodity such as inexpensive decorator art, I suppose that is fine, but failing that, a sale is simply a slap in the face that to those valued clients/collectors who have in good faith stepped up to the plate and paid what the artist asked for their work. I can guarantee that once they learn they might have paid more than they could have, they will not make that mistake again.
    I have been selling my work exclusively from my gallery for about 10 years now and in that time I have only ever had one sale and it was a frame sale. This was done to try to sell off some older frame styles we had in stock. The price of the art was not reduced, but the frame could be purchased at a 50% discount. After much promotion to existing clients the end result was a total of 2 sales. Not nearly worth the effort. In fact, even though I went to great lengths to make sure there was no confusion about the fact the sale was for the frame only, and not the art, I came away with the feeling that I may have alienated some clients. I would have been better of using those frames for firewood.
    Every artist that I have seen try the sale route has ultimately found themselves on that slow slippery slope to artistic extinction and I would caution any serious artist about venturing down that path.
    Very respectfully,

    The Kenneth Lane Smith Gallery
    Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Ken: Thanks for sharing a different side to this. Respectful disagreements are always welcome here.
      If you sell your art yourself and you never have a sale . . . How do you get rid of “old stuff”? This might be really old work or just an old style you dabbled in. Do you just hang onto it out of fear of looking improper? I think that’s shortsighted.
      “Selling out of desperation” is never good. We’re agreed on that. There must be a reason. There must be parameters. You mustn’t step on anyone’s toes. You mustn’t cheapen the work. You must do it with dignity and with strict limitations.
      I know that art galleries around the world lowered prices significantly during the recent recession. Why can’t artists do the same when the time is right?
      Also, see my notes below. I think sales lend themselves better to certain types of art.

    2. Alyson:
      For the most part, everything sells eventually. 100% of my works are limited editions, and in my experience, most pieces fall in and out of favor and back again over the years. So as I said, they usually all sell over time.
      We also try to be as generous as we can when it comes to donations for fundraisers, charities, etc., and this gives us the opportunity to help our community with donateds works, with the add-on benefit of creating awareness. What goes around, comes around.
      And finally, on the subject of donations, I learned a long time ago to never allow anything I donate to be included in a no-minimum bid silent auction. I have found too many people forget that the proceeds are supposed to go to charity, and instead bid as low as they can, often walking away with a piece for substantially less than it is worth. Good for the buyer I guess, but it doesn’t help the intended cause as much as it should, and it dilutes the value of the work.

  4. I agree with Kenneth.
    In my experience, a discount is only ever a good idea if you get something else in return. For example, I have given a handful of patrons discounts because they were business owners and had agreed to display the work in their places of business for a few months.
    Get full value even if you don’t get full money, that way no previous clients feel cheated and your work isn’t cheapened by the discount.

  5. I’ve never had sales, but I have given discounts to my patrons. I want the value of my art to be the retail price, and this is regardless as to whether the work is sold by me or in a gallery. I have been faced many times with the assumption that if I sell work from my studio, it will automatically be at a 50% discount because that’s what I would earn if the same work was sold in a gallery. I have had to explain that if I am doing my own selling, then I am in essence earning the commission I would normally pay a gallery. If I were to have sales, I think this would just confuse people. On the one hand, I am defending the value of my art to be the retail price, and on the other hand, I am saying that it is okay to sell it for less whenever I decide to have a sale. However, I do have to point out that I don’t sell my work online, and that I can imagine some artists being able to pull of sales of multiples like prints and photos, or jewelry. For example, artists could offer free shipping for a limited time, or a discount if you buy more than one print. I guess even with these two examples I’m shying away from using the word “sale.”

  6. Scott Courtenay-Smith

    Good stuff, Allison. I just had a “New Beginnings” (relocation) sale. I think that I followed most of your advice. And it went very well. Good to have positive re-enforcement. Another idea on the topic is to have a “studio cleaning” event. I pulled out works on paper, studies, little drawings etc., wrapped them in clear acetate with inexpensive backing and put prices on the back. Many of these items had never seen the light of day, and might have just stayed in flat files forever. Instead they found new homes. As we all know, framing is a HUGE expense. So offering works on paper un-framed is a way to avoid the issue entirely.
    Although I understand the premise of the above arguments, I think that your point was to have a _reason_. And I think as long as you do, it is fine to have a “sale”. I think that another kind of “slippery slope” for artists is to take themselves too seriously, price their art too high, and rarely sell a thing. Like it or not, we are in the retail business.

  7. I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while. I am aware that most gallery clients expect a discount when they buy art. So, I’ve been wondering what is the real difference between a “discount” and a “sale.” I mean if you expect to buy something for less (at a discount), then why might it be offensive to see it offered for less (on sale). I think the answer is this: The discount is offered to you once you decide to buy something. It’s about getting special treatment and acknowledgement of your loyalty. It’s also private between you and the gallery or the artist. The sale is offered to you in advance as motivation for you to think about buying something. It is a public announcement.
    I also want to add that I work mostly in sculpture. If I were to have an open studio, I would certainly think about also having available drawings or small paintings. The price difference is huge between one of my sculptures and a drawing. I would not be offering the latter on sale. I would be trying to provide smaller items to sell because I realize my sculptures are big and costly. The other thing is that I don’t think my older work has lost any value. I have never priced myself too high. Instead I have slowly increased my prices over the last 15 years as my work has sold in various galleries. I am all too happy to have one of my older works find a home with somebody new, and that is why I will give a discount.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Excellent points, Alex. However, I think many solid collectors expect a discount. Some of the recent art market books have mentioned this. So, while it may come at point of purchase, it’s understood well in advance.
      There IS a big difference between sale and discount. I do prefer the latter. It’s a reward for your top people. And you’re right: sales are better for certain types of work. As I mention below, I would think they’re best suited for art “products.”

  8. HJM art gallery

    I have tried sales many times and never had a great success. I even had a “sales” section in my on-line store which I, finally, removed. My art is mostly sold at a regular price and “sales” or free shipping promotions don’t make too much difference. One exception is Christmas Holidays when people are looking for deals and this is, as Alyson pointed out, a good reason for a sale. What I have discovered is: if someone really loves the artwork they will buy it regardless of sale or no sale. But the article is really great for someone planning a sale 🙂

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      HJM: I agree. I think most fine art sales are probably ineffective. They might be more useful when promoting art “products” like reproductions, greeting cards, etc.

    2. HJM art gallery

      Alyson, Yes! totally agree! Promotional items like greeting cards, posters, t-shirts, mugs etc. actually do well when “on sale” and this is a good way to introduce people to your art.

  9. I rarely have sales, and as a previously primarily gallery-represented artist (the world is changing alas), these were very specific in what was on sale. Studies, small works, works on paper, etc. – all things that my galleries do did show or sell so there was no complications with competition or customers feeling they paid a different amount elsewhere. I still do an annual sale, usually in January for tax time. This has become an annual event may of my collectors look forward to. It doesn’t stop them buying at other times, and buying full price, because they’re not waiting for a deal – the works in the sale are items generally not available any other time. So I agree with you – sale doesn’t necessarily mean discount, it can just mean something special.
    Gwenn has a good point too, what are we receiving in return? Always balance those intangible benefits too, like further exposure when a piece is shown, maybe referrals from a corporate client, or even a trade of service. My first “tax time” sale actually saved me from declaring bankruptcy, so was well worth the price trade off!
    As for urgency, I’ve found an auction format works best for my sales to generate urgency and some excitement – eBay specifically.

  10. Pingback: More Thoughts on Having a Sale on Your Art — Art Biz Blog

  11. I have built a base for my portraits of horses and portraits of children on Christmas Ornaments on ebay too. It seems once they get them in their hands they love them. However because Christmas ornaments are seasonal I offer sales before Sept,it keeps me busy and helps keep my supply of ornaments on hand.

  12. I think Kenneth and Alyson both make good points. Before I read this article, I was thinking “There’s no way to have a sale and maintain your market value as an artist, or is there?” All 8 tips are sound advice especially making it an exclusive limited-time offer that will last for an exact amount of days only based on first-come first-serve. Creating scarcity is always a great tactic and sets the stage for competition.
    On the flip side, the last thing you want to do is damage your reputation so I can imagine this is a very fine line that Artists need to be aware of.

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  14. I always have something on sale and my collectors love it. It does not effect the sales of other higher priced paintings. Online sales are 5,000 and counting. Sales are particulary great for study paintings and work that has been around for a while. Who doesn’t love a sale!

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