Surfing for Art

Buying art online.

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When selecting a new painting for the wall, a prospective buyer typically migrates toward an art gallery, art fair, or an auction house to fit the bill. But Amazon.com and other online platforms want buyers to consider another option. Arguably the world’s largest online go-to spot for such banalities as diapers and milk frothers, Amazon launched their Fine Art store last summer offering the art-seeking public an easier way to collect.

It is not the first platform to do so. In 2006, the bricks and mortar Saatchi Gallery (which propelled the careers of artists like Damien Hirst and Peter Doig) allowed emerging artists wishing to sell their work to upload images and a biography to their website. Since then, Saatchi Art has become a separate enterprise and enables artists from anywhere in the world to upload and sell their art directly to the collector; the company takes a 30 per cent commission. The site is reported to receive 73 million hits a day. The website was recently offering over 380,000 artworks (and counting) from which to filter and select.

Also in 2006, Christie’s Auctions launched their live online bidding program, Christie’s LIVE, which allows buyers anywhere in the world to see the auctioneer, the works, and bid in real time. Other big players in the art-commerce world are Paddle8 and Artsy. Paddle8 sells fine art and collectibles in online auctions through themed sales curated by influential figures, publications, and institutions, in addition to benefit auctions in collaboration with non-profits. Artsy, which launched in 2012, bills itself as an educational tool first and a platform for purchasing, second. It has partnered with art galleries, fairs, and museums offering the works of over 25,000 artists with price tags ranging from under $1,000 to over $1,000,000.

With so many options, what is a buyer to do? Get ready for the rising tide of art platforms, according to the 2013 Deloitte Art & Finance report. The data gathered indicates a rapid increase in the number of online art businesses since 2010 with over 300 online art ventures extant, as of last year. Their research revealed that over 60 per cent of art professionals and collectors thought the online art market will play a “significant role” in the next few years.

It’s not just online auctions and online galleries that are making gains. Art market sites like Artnet, Artprice, and AskArt offer online resources for collectors to gauge value trends in artworks and are very successful. The digitization of museum collections and the massive Google Art Project, which allows users to search and engage with artworks in over 300 museums internationally and in dozens of languages, show the public’s desire to access works they may not normally have the ability to view in real life. Art fairs even gave it a shot. The exclusively online VIP Art Fair debuted in 2011 featuring such prestige galleries as the Gagosian and David Zwirner. The effort was short-lived, however, as it was bought out by Artspace after two editions and shifted to a selling platform for galleries.

Critics make many valid points: will clients buy top-end artwork without first seeing it in person? What about guarantees on authenticity when buying sight-unseen? Will selling online dilute an artist’s bricks-and-mortar reputation? Others point out that buying online removes the human element: the buzz of an art fair, the sensation of standing before a meaningful artwork, the opportunity to build a relationship with a dealer and benefit from their knowledge, the emotional payoff of the handshake that seals the deal.

But it has been demonstrated that people are willing to spend a lot on online art purchases. In 2012, an online bidder won an Edward Hopper canvas, October on Cape Cod (1882–1967), for $9,602,500 USD on Christie’s LIVE. And art platforms have found ways to address some of the above concerns: Saatchi Art offers the option of working with a private curator and art advisor to guide collecting while Amazon’s Fine Art store features a “Collectors Picks” page where unspecified art collectors offer their curatorial advice on their favourite selections.

The reality is that art commerce sites are aimed at the middle market. The majority of works listed on Amazon are priced between $500 and $5,000 USD. By providing art to those who might not have access to galleries or to the kind of artwork they enjoy and by charging lower fees than traditional ventures, these platforms seek to attract and nurture new collectors by employing the very technology they expect. And anything that encourages appreciation and exploration of art is a good thing.

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July 21, 2014