Would You Buy Art Online?

Forget bricks and mortar. Online platforms devoted specifically to sharing and buying fine art are increasingly popping up. There’s ARTDEX, which provides collectors, gallerists, dealers, and artists a tool for organizing, archiving, and sharing art. And there are sites like artnet, Saatchi Art, Artsy, ArtStar, Paddle8, Lofty.com, 1stdibs, and even e-commerce giants Amazon and EBay, to name a select few (of over 300, apparently), that are gaining traction as the ‘places’ to go for fine art. The commercialization and the commerce of art on the web is booming of late.

This might be disconcerting to old-school types like me who believe in the face-to-face transaction when acquiring art. Having studied art history, I can attest to the experience of seeing slide upon slide of master works, then actually standing before the physical, original piece. There is simply no comparison between a reproduction and the real deal. A part of me still feels that buying art having seen only a digital image is just plain weird.

But that might not be the case for a new generation of art buyers and collectors. The turn of the 21st Century saw the rise of the Millennials. As fuzzy a definition of a generation that might be, it is easily appreciated that in the last two decades, we have witnessed—and wholeheartedly participated in—a massive increase in reliance on technology, with which this generation is closely associated.

This undeniably includes social media platforms: the prevalent Facebook, of course, but more than 50 others sites that people use to connect and share. Further, and more specifically, sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, and blog platforms like Tumblr allow people to share imagery. There is a marked emphasis these days on the visual rather than textual realm, thus the popularity of YouTube and Vimeo. Moreover, there is significant interest in the original, unique, handmade item (think Etsy.com).

buying art online

image: susan steiger

Is this a generation of risk-takers, or a more pragmatic, financially conservative group? According to Forbes, the latter might be more accurate. Now, review the online art platforms and evaluate what sells most and the average price range of sales? Emergent and Contemporary art is enjoying the most success, and this translates to acquisition prices that are considered affordable, from low thousands to mid-tens of thousands.

It’s the perfect market for the budding collector in his 20s, 30s, even up through 50s (which is the new 40s), who also likely identifies more with an artwork made by someone his own age than with the dead artist. This is not to say that million dollar artworks do not also sell online, just as other high-priced luxury items might, but that trend has not taken off—yet.

According to the TEFAF Art Market Report published this month by Art Economics and reviewed on Artnet news, the global art market achieved total sales of $63.8 billion in 2015, down from its highest ever-recorded level of $68.2 billion in 2014. While total sales saw a decline, online sales grew from 6 to 7 percent, or $4.7 billion.

So it is that online galleries like Spotte.com are established. Describing itself as “a pioneer of independent internet-based art boutiques, in a time when only colossal galleries, auction houses and art museums are reacting to changes of digital age,” this online exhibition space for contemporary art and design describes on its site that it is responding to “the volume of online art sales [that] transcended all the preliminary forecasts.”  Their focus is on “making the buying and investing process for our clients as easy possible.” Founder and director, Nelba Delmedico, states, “With a simple click of a button, you are transformed from an admirer to collector, from an observer to curator.” Above the price of each artwork exhibited on this website reads, “Be an online insider: discover emerging artists, buy affordable art, invest in contemporary masters of tomorrow.” Notably, they also maintain a presence on Artsy.

Art is nonetheless still perceived as a luxury commodity and on the high-end most collectors are not found browsing online inventories; they continue to be cultivated by galleries, dealers, and auction houses in the traditional fashion. The tide is obviously changing, and access to art is progressively for the masses, which inevitably includes those with a slimmer wallet. Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Serena & Lily all offer contemporary, original art online, with pieces priced as low as $120, and in some cases art specialists to advise on your acquisitions.

image: 4FR

image: 4FR

Art dealers, like Terry Ross of Ross Contemporary in Chicago, Illinois, will attest to occasional sales through their own websites, primarily to existing clients. Ross, who relied on an online presence until he recently established a physical space, said, “People like to come in to the gallery and see what they are buying.” Many a collector has been disappointed by an artwork upon seeing it “live”. Most will still prefer to see art in a gallery, art fair, or private viewing room.Ross has been successful with sales of contemporary art ranging in price between $1,000 and $4,000. “I keep my website up to date, and the Facebook page, which helps, but a space gives you a place to go and also some identity,” he said.

Should an artist, dealer, or gallery have a presence on a popular art e-commerce site, however, their chances of selling are substantially incremented nowadays. Likewise, if they know how to do business, they are able to cultivate that collector and establish an ongoing relationship— admittedly online, but in the age of Match.com this perhaps is not much of an issue. Plus they potentially broaden their reach to a potentially worldwide consumer base.

People have the impulse to collect things and art is a current rage. Certainly there are persons buying mainstream works, notably for investment. However, the lower end market, which does not necessarily compromise on quality or originality—nor is it quite as susceptible to the investment-minded collector—is accessible and, according to one avid collector of contemporary art consulted, that accessibility is worth the risk.

“I think the lower end of the market is ripe for online purchases, especially with higher resolution imagery.” Consider, also, that most online purchases can be returned for credit or even refund, as these websites increase the ease of use for the customer. “I’m a believer,” he adds, “My purchase on Artsy with [a participating gallery] was seamless, and the director of the gallery has established a relationship with me, though I haven’t purchased anything since.” He concludes, however, “I do feel the higher the price, the less comfortable I would be without seeing it in person.”

The evolution of art acquisition from the physical to the digital realm is undeniable and unstoppable. For a generation of people that enjoys the comfort and ease of using a computer, tablet, or smartphone to buy nearly anything online, from toothpaste and diapers to books and clothes, not to mention groceries and even a week’s worth of meals, art dot-coms are a perfect fit. And you don’t have to be an expert. It takes a fairly modest sum of disposable income, but above all, the interest and intent.

To use an analogy that Millennials (and their parents) might best understand, buying art is a bit like getting a tattoo: once you get the first one, you are already planning on another, and another, and another. Art dot coms make buying that much more accessible.


esperanza león

Esperanza León was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and raised in East Hampton, New York. She obtained a Bachelor of Art in Art History at the University of Toronto then moved to Venezuela to pursue museum studies and develop cultural and visual arts projects while working in museums and theatres, until her return to East Hampton in 2000. Since 2001 she has directed Solar, dedicated to promoting art and design from Latin America. She has organized and curated more than 70 exhibitions and contributed to exhibition catalogues and written for publications such as The East Hampton Star, The Southampton Press, LI Pulse, and Hamptons Art Hub.