You don’t discover the fact right away, but if you start buying Northwest Coast art regularly, you soon learn that most art galleries stock two types of works: The type that gets displayed, and the type that sells without ever been hung in the gallery or appearing on a web-site.
The type that never gets displayed comes from a number of sources. It may be a piece that is being resold after the original buyer has died, lost interest, or needs to make room in their connection. Sometimes, it is a piece by a top artist for whom the demand is so great that the gallery staff have a shrewd idea of who might buy it. It may be a piece that has been brought into the store for an upcoming exhibition.
Occasionally, it is a piece that is half-finished, such as the half-finished panel in one gallery that was abandoned because it developed a crack, or the telephone chest I saw at one gallery that had Bill Gates’ initials on it because the artist thought only someone like Gates would want to buy it – but he didn’t. The origin can even be as simple as a piece that the gallery currently has no room for, and has tucked away in a closet that most potential customers never see.
Another source of undisplayed art is the artists themselves. Some artists, particularly better known ones, have enough of a following that they don’t need the galleries except as a form of marketing. Much of their work is either begun as a commission or else sold soon after completion to people on the artist’s contact list.
Whatever the exact origin, these undisplayed pieces are frequently the best or the quirkiest work available. For instance, I know of one gallery that has a collection of original acrylics by an artist who recently died. As soon as news of the artist’s death reached the gallery, the owner pulled the pieces until he could decide what to do with them, and hasn’t displayed them since.
In another case, a highly regarded but not very prolific artist delivered his latest masterpiece to the gallery. The gallery never displayed it, but sent word to a few select customers. Despite the high price tag, the work was sold within two weeks. In a similar case, a master carver placed his latest work on consignment, and the gallery sold it in less than 24 hours. Only a handful of regular customers got to see so much as an online photo.
If you want to see such work, the only way you can is to cultivate relationships with the senior staff at galleries or with the artists. Some artists prefer not to deal directly with buyers, but, otherwise, many staff members and artists are only too pleased to talk about what interests them. They can teach you a lot, and, as they get to know you, introduce you to the work of other artists, and, if you let them know your interests, they will gradually include you in the list of people who learn when undisplayed work becomes available. But building relationships is the only way you are likely to have a chance to buy – or just admire – some of the best work in the field.