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Selling Art Online: A Cautionary Tale

January 19, 2011

Selling art, especially online, is an ongoing learning curve for most of us. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes!

The Background

I have a website dedicated to my portrait art. The way it’s set up allows people to contact me through e-mail, order and pay for commissions all online. This opens up business to anybody, anywhere. While the majority of my clients are local people, I have had a few random visitors commission a portrait, and one of my long term goals is to increase that number.

The way I have arranged it is this:

  • The client orders a portrait and sends in their photos.
  • Work on their portrait does not start until a 50% deposit is made.
  • When the client has approved the completed portrait by e-mail (digital image), the portrait is shipped.
  • When the client receives the portrait, they are then responsible for paying the remaining 50% plus shipping.

Internet purchases are about mutual trust. The client is trusting that I will provide a satisfactory product, and I am trusting that the client will pay for it. I require a deposit as insurance in case the client decides to cancel their order halfway through. That way, I am compensated for the work that I have done up until that point. I don’t ask for the full payment until the client actually sees the physical portrait. This gives them the insurance of knowing exactly what they are paying for.

Which brings us to…

The Cautionary Tale

About a week before Christmas, I got an order for a portrait from a gentleman from another country who came across my site. He was understanding of the fact that he would not get the portrait before Christmas, but hoped it could be done as soon as possible. E-mails were exchanged and within hours of the initial message, the pictures were sent and the deposit made.

I was thrilled to have a sale from my website. I got to work right away and let me tell you, I worked my ass off! I finished that portrait in record time and managed to get it in the mail before Christmas, even paying extra out of my own pocket for faster shipping. I was more than willing to go the extra mile to satisfy a customer that might bring in more business.

Weeks went by and I heard nothing. According to the tracking number, the portrait arrived shortly after New Years. I heard nothing.

I sent invoices. I heard nothing. I sent e-mails.

I heard nothing.

At this point, all kinds of things are going through my head: maybe he forgot… maybe he’s out of town… maybe I’ve been had.

Luckily, I had his mailing address, as well as a cell phone number. I debated the best way to reach him and decided that a direct approach would be best. I called him and had one of the strangest conversations I’ve had in my life. He stated that he’d forgotten and assured me he would pay the balance the next day.

That was three days ago. Still nothing.

The Moral of the Story

Protect yourself when it comes to online art sales!

I certainly made some mistakes throughout this process, but I’ve always had the philosophy that I would give the world the benefit of the doubt until I got screwed. Well, this is it. Whether the payment comes through or not, I’d rather not go through this again. Next week I will write a post about the mistakes I made, as well as the steps I am going to take to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Sign up for my RSS feed to make sure you don’t miss out! I’ll also keep you posted on the payment status!

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From → Art General

9 Comments
  1. It’s a good cautionary tale. While I’m sorry to hear that you went through this, I look forward to reading more about the experience and the ways that you feel you could have done things better.

  2. This is terrible! I have always been hesitant to take commissions online and it is so sad to hear that this has happened to you. I too look forward to reading more about your experience with this and the things you’re planning to do to avoid it happening again.

  3. Dan permalink

    What a bummer! But how can you protect yourself short of demanding all of the payment up front? Challenging.

    I try to put myself in the customer’s shoes for a moment. Assume I send him a canvas of mine, all paid up front. He receives it and doesn’t like the feel and texture of the painting, something that can happen since the pictures of the painting are never quite the same as the real thing. Partial refund maybe?

    • Dan, that’s exactly how I feel! I don’t know that I would pay for something in full without being able to see the finished product first. It’s definitely a challenge that comes with selling online.

  4. So, I’m curious… do you only ship once full payment is received now? btw, just new to your blog – great advice – thanks!

    • Yes, Trish, that will be my new policy (when I get some time to set it up!). Hopefully prospective buyers will understand that I need to protect myself as well and be satisfied with reviewing a digital copy of their commission.

  5. Standard practice is 50% down and the remainder + shipping due upon completion. Checks need to clear the bank before shipping. I use paypal for credit card processing.
    Send digital images ahead of time to get the approval of the final painting.
    Make sure you talk to them on the phone. Communication is very important.
    Terms need to be included into your website. Include all sales are final and what revisions you are willing to do. Some state a specific amount, like 5 changes. Others give a specific time that your wiling to make changes, for instance up to 2 weeks after receipt. They would have to pay the extra shipping costs.
    Your client may love the painting and then 3 weeks later Aunt Mary will come over and criticize it.
    Hope this helps and happy painting!

  6. Thadeus permalink

    Consider this. Instead of demanding partial payment upfront you demand full payment upfront. Heres the catch. Progress is provided to the client by email with digital photographs. However an agreement is in place, legally binding of course. The client purchases your services, if however he/she is unhappy with your services he/she may cancel his/her order forfeiting half the monies paid. The client receives a refund you get compensated for your time. If he/she is unhappy with the final product on receipt and does not want adjustments made but a refund, the client returns the item to the artist and receives a refund of half the price less shipping. You get compensated, they get some money back. I personally refuse to paint for anyone who doesnt take me seriously (i.e. impulse buyers). I work on commission and I charge heavily with good cause -the time and heart that I pour into my art justifies the cost. That said its not about the money, its about the purpose and message in the artwork, the meaning it is to embody for someone else that matters. This approach also discourages those not serious about commissioning a worthy work of art.

  7. Chris permalink

    I agree with Thadeus post on full payment first and refund policy. This should drive away any would be thieves and honest people will definitely understand if you explain it to them.

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