There are thousands of galleries and art dealers in the world. In the USA, there is an Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA, 575 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022) that gives a list of its 165 members and a very comprehensive Guide to Collectors that may be useful to an aspiring buyer.
To qualify for membership, a gallery must have been in business for at least five years, have a reputation for honesty and integrity. You would not expect less. Note that the gallery of the flamboyant Larry Gagosian is not a member of the ADAA : "Gaga" does not embarrass himself with that sort of membership.
Among the expectations that a collector must have, the ADAA cites as a #1 Authenticity, followed by Quality, Rarity, Condition, Provenance and Value. Note that value is held in ultimate position and authenticity in #1. We would think that works by Hirst or Warhol or Tracey Emin or even Koons would respond to this criteria. Not at all. Warhol painted silkscreens by the dozens, Emin openly mocks authenticity, Hirst used to say that great artists are great negotiators and Koons does not care less about rarity that when he exhibits a plastic tortoise or a Puppy made of bushes.
However all the members of the ADAA would kill mother, sister and lover to have the chance to exhibit a Koons or a Hirst. It is one more case of "Do what I say but don't do what I do" theory. And when it comes to auctions, the ADAA tells you that for both sellers and buyers, auctions are a gamble in which control is ceded to fickle and sometimes irrational forces. Understood ?
Dealers, will tell you the ADAA, are able to give personal attention to buyers and sellers at all levels of the market, while auctioneers lavish much of their energy on multi-million-dollar lots. ADAA dealers have made a long-term commitment to the art and artists they represent, whereas auctioneers seldom look much further than the next sale. Capito ?
More, the ADAA warns you that pre-sale estimates published in auction catalogues are not necessarily predictive of final sales results or of fair value. Estimates are frequently the result of a negotiation between the auction-house and the consignor and may represent wishful thinking on both sides. Verstehen ?
Don't even believe that you made a bargain because you got a lot below its lower estimate. This is false. If a lot appears to be going cheaply, it may be that the estimate was too high. Possibly the work is in bad condition. Perhaps the attribution is doubtful and perhaps the auctioneer is a crook. Compris ?
In London you have the Society of Art Dealers (SAD) in Ormond House, 3 Duke of York Street London, SW1Y 6JP that boasted of "around" 100 members and was founded in 1932. Do not expect a great help from this respectable association ; the Society has a better role to play than assisting you in the Art jungle : its vital role is to represent "the interests of its members in discussions with the government and other professional bodies on current issues concerning the art trade." Do not think though that there are discussions with the auction houses, they hate each other. Entendido ?
Once more note that the most powerful art dealer in England, Charles Saatchi, is not a member. SAD's artwoks database is very poor and does not mention a Koons or a Hirst but it gives you an exhaustive lists of galleries where you can buy Contemporary art.
In France you have the Syndicat des Antiquaires and the Cie Nationale des Commissaires Priseurs, two very old institutions whose protectionist habits were shattered in the early 2000s when European regulations forced "art dealers" (antiquaires) and "commissaires priseurs" (auctioneers) to drop their monopolistic policies (Law of July 2000) opening the French art market to the competition of Sotheby's and Christie's. Those two organisations do not deal with the public needs and have a pure role of negociation and representation with public authorities. But there is no art dealers or galleries association like the ADAA or the SDA (2).
In Canada, there is a Contemporary Art Galleries Association (AGAC) sprang from Montreal art dealers’ desire to ensure the recognition and viability of the contemporary art market. Founded in 1985, the AGAC is a non-profit organization whose function is to defend its members interests. Presently, the Association includes contemporary art galleries from Quebec and Ontario.
According to a book (1) recently published in the USA, the Superstar dealers are Gagosian gallery, Haunch of Venison, White Cube, Lisson Gallery, Sadie Coles, Victoria Miro, Hauser & Wirth, Maureen Paley, The Approach and Stephen Friedman gallery in London and Gagosian, PaceWildenstein, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper, Gladstone, David Zwirner, Matthews Marks, Sonnabend, Luhring Augustine and Gavin Brown in New York. One could add Artcurial in Paris, the Galleria Colonna and the Doria Pamphili Galleria in Rome, the Stella Art gallery in Moscow, the Opera City Art Gallery in Tokyo and a handful of galleries in Zurich, Mexico and Madrid.
A special mention must be made of the interactive Saatchi gallery established in 2006 which is only an on line gallery but it offers representation to 38,000 artists and has more than 70 million hits per day. Anybody can register his works on the famous Saatchi gallery.
Some sources advance that the average turn-over of that kind of very famous galleries in 2006 was around $650,000 and that they represent less than 1% of all contemporary artists. The majority of artists seek and settle for representation with less well-branded dealers. Somme 12,000 artists stroll the streets of London in search of a representing gallery and the figure is said to be 15,000 in New York.
Having said that it is hard to tell where to find the best deals and to clinch the juicest bargains : if you are beginning a serious collection and are really determined with some means I would advise to use the expertise of an art dealer. But do some serious shopping around in your city before to pick up one, ask questions and don't be afraid to look goofy. If you are really committed, it will show and the dealer will pay attention to you. If he/she does not and snubs you, just walk away, he/she has lost a good client.
On another hand if you just want to catch a nice piece of art now and then and are not interested in becoming a serious collector just go to auction houses anywhere in the world but look at their incoming sales and refrain from letting yourself caught in a stupid bidding war.
Once you are an experienced collector and know the art market, then you can drop your dealer and enjoy the thrill of the hammer especially when it is yielded by star auctioneer like Tobias Meyer of Sotheby's (3) (picture) and go to the big auction sales that draw the attention of the media and huge crowds... But never forget : Caveat emptor !!
(1) The $12 million stuffed shark by Don Thompson, Palgrave Macmillan 2008
(2) Curiously enough the opening of the French market coincided with the acquisition of Christie's by businessman François Pinault and of Phillips de Pury by his rival Bernard Arnault.
(3) Tobias Meyer is Deputy Chairman, Europe at Sotheby's auction house, Head of Department, Worldwide Contemporary Art, and can be reached at Tel: +1 212 606 7254 or e-mailed to at tobias.meyer@Sothebys.com