Rules of Engagement: Advisor Todd Levin on Miami's Art Fairs

Emilie Trice | November 4, 2021

A work by Damien Hirst at the Faena Hotel, Miami Beach, photo by Muzammil Soorma on Unsplash

"I think it's best not to think of art fairs as a transactional modality, but rather as an educational opportunity."

Todd Levin is an art industry heavy-weight who has advised many of the art world’s leading collectors, galleries, and institutions during his 35 years in business as the principal of Levin Art Group. In addition to sourcing works for his clients, he manages loans to museums, curates gallery shows (at revered venues including Sprüth Magers) replete with historical rigor, and is a fixture on the international art fair circuit. He’s also a board member of the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA) and a go-to source for art market intel. 

Prior to Miami Art Week (November 29 - December 4, 2021), we sat down with Todd to determine the rules of engagement for any art fair, but specifically for the grandmaster of them all — Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB). Among our burning questions — what’s an appropriate discount? When is it acceptable to request a reserve? What artists and galleries will Todd be watching this year? 

In his signature no-nonsense style, Todd breaks down proper art fair etiquette — a welcome reminder following two years of pandemic-issued isolation. So dust off your social skills, pack your smartphone (and some comfortable shoes), and get ready for the cultural marathon that is Miami Art Week.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Todd Levin of Levin Art Group, photographed by Tess Mayer inside his Usonian home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, "The Stuart Richardson House" (1941) with Martín Ramírez, "Untitled (Horse and Rider)." All Artwork images © the Artist.

AA: Should a novice collector purchase their first artwork(s) from an art fair? Or is an art fair too overwhelming?

TL: If one attends an art fair such as ABMB, there are usually 200+ international galleries participating.  The primary value of an art fair is in the opportunity to build face-to-face relationships with those gallerists. 

If you're not constantly traveling the world, or even the nation, regularly stopping by galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and Paris, etc.— an art fair like ABMB allows one to have all those gallerists gathered together in one large space at the same time, allowing direct access that one might not otherwise have. 

I think it's best not to think of art fairs as a transactional modality, but rather as an educational opportunity.

AA: How does an advisor such as yourself work with collectors in the art fair context? 

TL: There's no specific protocol. An advisor’s job does not begin when their client enters the fair vernissage — the advisor’s job takes place weeks before that, well in advance of the fair, on behalf of their clients. 

If an art advisor has done their due diligence, they’ll receive packing lists well in advance of the fair from all applicable galleries, if not all of the galleries, who will be participating. That’s how an advisor is able to offer clients artworks that they might be interested in — or which would be appropriate for their collections — prior to attending the fair. The clients then have the opportunity to isolate and purchase artworks that are most crucial to their specific interests weeks prior to the vernissage. 

A client working with an advisor who has done their due diligence will initially focus on two things when they enter the fair vernissage: first, visually inspecting in person the artwork at the fair that they've held in advance of the fair opening as to condition and authenticity, and then simply confirming those purchases. 

After those initial artworks are inspected and confirmed, the client is now free to think less transactionally and more educationally—to look at new artists and/or to think about deepening their collection in artists or movements they already are committed to. 

AA: Let's assume that the works at a gallery’s booth are not all pre-sold or reserved. Is it appropriate to ask to reserve a piece on day one of the fair?

TL: I'm going to give you a caveat at the end of this answer.

I think it's fine to ask for a reserve at a fair if you are seriously considering an artwork. But, you need to establish a time limit for that reserve with the gallerist.

It’s important to understand that, for most gallerists, the first day of the fair is the day when they're probably (from a monetary point of view) going to do 50% to 90% of their entire transactions. And those transactions are going to happen not only on day one, but within the first three hours of day one. 

So, walking in and cavalierly reserving artworks in the first few hours of a fair is a bit of an ask, because if you decide not to buy, then the gallerist has lost the opportunity for other sales in a time pressured environment. If one must ask for a reserve, therefore, there needs to be a clear understanding between you and the gallerist of how long that reserve is going to be in effect. 

On the first day of ABMB, I think one could request a reserve for 60 minutes or so— that's reasonable. On the other hand, you can't request a reserve for two days—that's not going to work for the gallerist.

The caveat I mentioned earlier is that I just don't like reserving things at all, because of the aforementioned reason— I understand how crucial it is for the gallerists not to have their artwork tied up on the first day of an art fair. So, I'm personally not for reserves, and I really don't encourage my clients to engage in reserves, unless there's a significantly probative reason why a reserve would be required (such as condition reporting, research to authenticate provenance, etc.)— but definitely not just running around reserving stuff  “helter skelter.” I think that's very bad form at a major art fair, to be honest.

AA: Let's say that you see a piece and you want to make an offer on it. How would you approach negotiating the price at a fair?

TL: There’s a misconception that 10% is sort of a standard discount— I think every discount has to be uniquely negotiated. It's really a case-by-case situation.

If you're working with an advisor, a good advisor is going to know the gallerist and the demand for a particular artist’s work. Consequently, a seasoned advisor is going to know when they can push a little further and when not.

Sometimes advisors have better access when it comes to discounts. A collector might walk in and get a 10% discount, but if that same collector walked in with an advisor that the gallery does a lot of business with—and with whom they have a respectful relationship— that same collector might be able to access a 15% discount, or more. 

On the other hand, if a client is new, but clearly has the potential to become a serious repeat client, a gallery might initially offer a slightly larger discount in order to strategically kickstart building that relationship. 

I will give you another caveat here also, though— I am not a fan of discounts on younger/emerging art priced under $50,000. 

I just don't believe in asking for a discount at that level because, fundamentally, that discount is like taking money out of the mouth of a younger or emerging artist. And also out of (usually) a younger or emerging gallery’s pocket. That money—both for the younger artist and for the younger gallerist—is sorely needed to pay for studio or gallery space. And it can make a big difference when the artist and gallerist are at an earlier stage just starting out in their respective careers. 

Gallerists —and, to a certain extent, artists—will remember collectors and advisors who demanded egregious discounts early in their careers. 

They will also remember—and have goodwill towards —collectors and advisors who they felt supported them at an earlier stage in their careers. So when talking about the transactional component of discounts, it’s important to think of this strategically in a long-term way. 

AA: At a fair everything is usually happening very fast — how does one get the work shipped and installed and who pays for that?

TL: Shipping and installation are always a cost that the purchaser bears— it is not the gallery's responsibility. However, I will say that due to changes in recent tax laws, it may greatly behoove the purchaser to work with the gallery’s internal structure, and have them be responsible for making all the shipping arrangements.

The buyer will still pay those costs, but the gallery will contact the shippers and arrange everything—they will usually bill that separately. Everything should be transparent, so it’s a separate bill for the shipping costs. 

From a sales/use tax ramification point of view, particularly when a significant purchase is taking place and there's a significant potential sale or use tax cost on the line, it’s important for the gallery to arrange shipping internally, so that everything is crystal clear to the federal and state IRS. This protocol should be unimpeachable from a legal perspective because if anything looks askew, the IRS can audit and retroactively come after the purchaser (and they will make life miserable). It's not worth cutting corners on shipping. 

Installation arrangements should be taken care of at the same time you're making the shipping arrangements. It's all one thing. Ask the gallery to provide quotes and choose the one that works best for you. 

AA: In general, if the piece that arrives at my residence and it's damaged, what would be the protocol to follow to get that taken care of?

TL: Legally, the minute one pays for an artwork and the monies are received in the gallery’s account, the artwork’s title passes from the gallery and artist to the new owner, even though they may or may not have taken physical possession of the work. One is now the titled legal owner of the artwork, and it's at that moment that the new purchaser should make sure that the artwork is properly insured under their existing fine art policy, or whatever policy one has. 

Before the artwork is removed from the gallery (or the storage location, or wherever), it should be condition-reported and examined to prove for insurance purposes that there are no existing condition issues. 

Let's assume the work is in fine condition when it is collected. Now, the piece is crated and put on the truck, boat, or plane, and it is shipped to you. When the artwork arrives, and the crate is opened, you now note the artwork is damaged—then clearly the damage occured in transit, because the initial condition report stated it was fine at the moment it was collected.

In that case, if you have elected through the shipper to purchase their transit insurance, then the shipper would have to deal with that. If your personal insurance policy provides in transit insurance— many good ones do—then perhaps you elected not to take the additional transit insurance from the shipper (because there's no need to do both, necessarily). In that case, you should immediately place a call to your insurance company, explain to them what the situation is, and go forward from there.

Installation shot: THE VIVISECTOR, curated by Todd Levin at Sprüth Magers, London, (foreground) Bangwa Cameroon figurine, 19th Century, (background) works by Cindy Sherman. Image courtesy Sprüth Magers, London.

AA: How do you choose which clients (or collectors) to advise? 

TL: It's different for every advisor. I've been doing this for a very long time; so, at this point, my clients tend to come to me from two specific sources, which is either recommendations from my current clients, or recommendations from museum directors and/or curators. 

Over the decades, I’ve worked with many museums in terms of placing works with them, or conducting lectures, or even giving off-the-cuff advice to some of their trustees or committee members when they needed help with a specific question. Some of my clients have provided financial patronage, or have donated and/or loaned works to institutions, so I am regularly engaged with a large network of museums.

I can't really take on too many new clients because I work directly with every one of my clients. It's a very bespoke kind of service—I don't have a bunch of younger advisors working under me. Everything that a client requires is done directly with/by me personally— and that limits the number of clients that I can work with at any given time. 

I'm fine with that because it's important to my clients that they can trust that I'm the only one who's seen their financial information. They don't want other prying eyes to have access to that information: where they live, what they own, where it's located, what it cost, what it's currently valued at, how they got it, who they bought it from, how it is insured, etc. 

At the end of the day, my job is to be a fiduciary on behalf of my clients. I maintain good relationships with everybody that I work with, from curators and museum directors to artists, galleries, auction houses, collectors, and other advisors.  But I am also always cognizant of potential conflicts of interest (and even the appearance of potential conflicts of interest), and my fiduciary responsibility is always to my client.

AA: You're also a board member of the Association of Professional Art Advisors. Can you talk a little bit about that group and its mission?

TL:  The APAA was started with the idea that there needed to be a centralized, global organization that self-vetted advisors—internally and at a very high standard—with a rigidly transparent ethical perspective. 

An art advisor doesn't require any professional licensing. Doctors have to pass certain tests, Wall Street traders have to pass certain board examinations, and lawyers have to pass the bar. To be an art advisor, however, all you have to do is print up a business card. (And many don't even do that, they just have an instagram page these days.)

The current APAA mission is educational— to promote the ideas of how APAA members operate, and why they choose to work that way. 

APAA also provides a one-stop, informational online platform where a collector can find an art advisor who is vetted to the highest ethical standards..  There’s a wide variety of advisors from different geographical areas around the globe, who possess all areas of expertise—from antiquities all the way forward to emerging art, and in all media. Some work only at a corporate level, and some work at a private level. The APAA is essentially the diamond standard for art advisors. 

I also want to be clear, however, that simply because an advisor is not an APAA member in no way reflects that they're less than an excellent advisor. 

AA: Final question: Who are some galleries and artists showing at ABMB that are on your radar this year?

TL: In broad terms, I always like to take time after the initial frenzy of ABMB has subsided to check out sub-areas within the larger overall umbrella of the fair. Two such areas I always advise people attending ABMB to not miss are the “Nova” section dedicated to galleries presenting new artworks created within the past three years, and the “Positions” section focusing on young galleries showcasing solo presentations of their emerging artists.

To learn more about Todd, visit the Levin Art Group's website.


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