Some time ago, Carey Vose, director of the esteemed Boston art gallery that bears her family’s name, got a phone call from a woman in Alpharetta, Georgia. The woman had inherited a painting, was going to put it up for auction, but she had noticed an old Vose Galleries label on the back and wondered if Carey Vose might have any information about the artwork. It turned out to be An Instrument of Many Strings, an 1897 oil on canvas by Mary Lizzie Macomber, an artist whose career had been championed by Carey’s great-grandfather, Robert C. Vose, at the turn of the twentieth century. Carey suggested that the woman consign the painting for sale through Vose. The woman said she’d think about it. “Those were a nervous few days,” says Vose.
“We found it in Bucks County early on in our career: a little early nineteenth-century standing cupboard with glorious azure paint and a scallop detail at the base,” says Patrick Bell, co-owner with Edwin Hild of Olde Hope Antiques, a gallery that specializes in folk art and has locations in Pennsylvania and New York. “It was perfect. We’d never seen anything like it.” Bell has now been involved in the sale of that cupboard four times—and would gladly make it five.
Over the course of more than thirty years, banking executive Frederick Copeland and his wife, Susan, built a large and important collection of early American furniture and decorative arts for their Connecticut home. A majority of the works had come from Nathan Liverant and Son, an antiques shop in the town of Colchester founded in 1920, where they share the Copelands’ special admiration for the work of the early craftsmen of Connecticut and New England. Before Rick passed away in 2022 following an illness, he told his children to entrust Arthur Liverant with the disposition of the collection. “We were honored and very pleased to help,” Liverant says.
Most of us think of the transactional economy working this way: a merchant has an item in stock; you exchange payment for that item and take it home. End of story. The merchant does not want that item back any more than you want to give it back.
But certain dealers in antiques and fine art have a different relationship with the works they sell, a kind of intimacy, as if the thing were a member of the family. They want to see them go to a good home. They want them to be well cared for and appreciated. And they are happy to see them again.
That attitude isn’t sentimentality; it’s informed by sound business reasoning. Having handled a piece before is a competitive edge, says Frank Levy of New York’s Levy Galleries, whose family has been in the antiques trade since 1901. If a collector is thinking about selling a piece and wants to find out quietly how the market might receive it, “I have information that auction houses and other dealers don’t have,” he explains. “That’s a huge advantage.”
A willingness to have works return is also a mark of a shop’s integrity. “We always tell people that we stand behind our things and we’re happy to have them back. We’re not selling used cars,” Liverant says. “If your time with a piece is over, we’ll welcome it here.” That a piece was sold from his shop years before, he adds, is in and of itself a mark of its worthiness: “I cherish receiving things that my grandfather or my father might have sold—that’s a real attribute.”
A gallery of long-standing might have had a special relationship with an artist, and not only knows the market for their work but has an interest in seeing it sell well. The woman from Alpharetta did accept Carey Vose’s offer, and the gallery sold the Macomber painting to the Delaware Art Museum, which has a notable collection of the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites, who strongly influenced Macomber. Who knows where the painting would have gone if sold by a Georgia auction house? “We built the market for that artist and it would have been a shame for anyone else to handle that sale,” Vose says. “When you help build a collection you want it treated right. Nothing is more heartbreaking than when heirs don’t take care of deaccessioning a collection properly. We can typically make them many times more than what they’ll make at auction.”
Being open to taking an artwork back—or, at least, helping to find the right place to handle it—is also good customer service. “Yesterday, I was helping the trustee for an estate—our gallery will get one painting and we discussed which regional auction house was best for the other items. It was easy information for me to share, and I could hear the relief in her voice as we went over the next steps,” says Emily Lenz, gallery director at D. Wigmore Fine Art in New York.
“As dealers we take great care to help clients build quality collections, and we think of our clients as friends,” Lenz adds. “When they need our advice or help buying or selling, we hope they’ll contact us first. We’re direct and realistic. We’re active in the art market and know what works have a strong market and who the best seller might be for works out of fashion. Our gallery has relationships with many museums so we know where the art will be appreciated and we can recommend museums that would be receptive to a donation. We also know auction houses across the country and what they sell well. Each situation is unique.”
But of course, emotion does play a role in the willingness to have a thing return to your shop. To the best dealers in antiques and fine art, the works they carry are not simply merchandise. “Maybe it’s peculiar to folk art, but you develop a relationship to a piece; you feel close to it,” says Bell. “You know when it leaves your hands that you’ve been part of its story, and that it’s going to gather more stories. Yet when you see that thing you cared so much about come back to you again, you feel a sense of renewed connection—a sort of joy.”