On June 20, the Berlin-based online auction house Auctionata sold an 18th century Chinese clock. Created by a Guangzhou workshop, the musical and automaton clock is ivory-mounted and adorned with figurines and pagodas set in a mountain scene. The bidding started with 300,000 euro. A mere ten minutes later the final bid of 3.37 million euro was made, setting a new online auction record. The buyer is an art world fixture: businessman Liu Yiqian, owner of the Long Museum in Shanghai. More remarkable, however, is that competing with Mr. Yiqian were more than 1,000 bidders from 35 countries, most of whom have never set foot in a live auction house but readily offered six figure bids via livestream or even over an iPhone app on a piece of art they hadn’t seen with their own eyes.
Screengrab of "Important Asian Art" auction results at Auctionata. Accessed July 13, 2015.
The art market took a long time getting to the internet. It’s a late if not extremely reluctant adaptor. The general opinion was that art wouldn’t be suitable for online trading. Its uniqueness and physical qualities would render appraisal based on digital files impossible. The VIP Art Fair, the world’s first online art fair that premiered on 22 January 2011, tried to refute these misgivings but stumbled upon technical difficulties. After heavy investments in software and personnel the fair made a comeback the next year but ever since its acquisition by Artspace in April 2013 no news about a follow-up has been released.
There are no figures about sales at the VIP Art Fair but judging from reactions of participants they weren’t that great. The pioneering initiative may have been handicapped by its head start. If it were to be launched today, it would be a completely different story. Over a span of only a few years the art market has travelled the same route as booksellers, fashion retailers and coffee merchants. And it has done so with a vengeance. In a 2014 report insurance company Hiscox assessed online art sales in that year to be $2.64 billion worldwide, a number that is expected to grow to $6.3 billion in 2019. The 2014 TEFAF Art Market Report, commissioned by The European Art Foundation, estimated even higher online sales at 3.3 billion euro (approximately $3.6 million), comprising 6 percent of the global art market.
The bulk of online art sales are made through auction houses. Specialized parties like Auctionata and Paddle8 claim a large slice of the pie but traditional houses have also diversified digitally. Christie’s, for example, organized an online only auction pilot in December 2011 of 1,000 items from the Elizabeth Taylor Collection. Since then, the world market leader has seriously stepped up its online activity, resulting in 2014 in no fewer than 78 e-commerce sales held across 21 different categories. Amongst the bestsellers were Richard Serra’s Pamuk ($905,000) and Pablo Picasso’s Service Corrida ($245,000). Compared to the auction house’s total revenue of over $5 billion, the online turnover is modest at $35.1 million, but a growth figure of 60 percent is telling: the internet is the future.
Looking up close at Picasso's Service Corrida, sold online for $245,000 in 2014. Screengrab via Christie's. Accessed July 13, 2015.
Not in the least because online is where the new buyers are. Christie’s calculated that 32 percent of online buyers last year were new to Christie’s. Of these novices a whopping 42 percent were under the age of 45. This is the demographic everybody in the art market is aiming for. Christie’s archrival Sotheby’s is following another strategy for reaching tomorrow’s collectors community. It has teamed up with eBay and on April 1, 2015 organized its first online event. The photography auction with works by the likes of Irving Penn, Ansel Adams, and Richard Avedon resulted in a $5.17 million turnover. More auctions are likely to follow.
According to the Hiscox online art trade report, convenience is a very important factor in the success of online art sales. But a lot of respondents also cite the fact that bidding from behind a screen is a lot less intimidating than attending an actual auction. Moreover, they find it a lot easier to select works fitting their budget. That an online presence can lower the—for some people forbidding—threshold of a physical location, is something Christie’s has experienced. The growing digital audience was echoed by a 39 percent increase in footfall to the Christie’s King Street headquarters in London.
What is true for auction houses is even more so for galleries. Hidden behind glazed windows or massive steel doors, with a laptop-absorbed beauty in Prada black as its stern gatekeeper: that’s still the rather unwelcoming image a lot of potential art buyers have of galleries. In a recent survey done by Dutch online art platform We Like Art, 72 percent of 18 to 35 year-olds admit they find asking for prices in a gallery prohibitive. Instead they do their research online, where things can be a lot more transparent. And they often stay online, buying art from web shops and by email. This is a generation weaned on Amazon and eBay, not hesitant to spend large amounts of money online. The exclusivity of galleries—the unspoken set of rules, the cultivated inner circle, the lack of clarity about prices—is not something they aspire to; it’s something they regard as an obstacle. The far more democratic internet levels the playing field for them and that’s where they’ll develop their taste and eventually build their collections.
Screengrab of Gagosian web shop. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Some galleries have picked up on this trend. Many have crafted an online presence through social media and newsletters. But most gallery websites still look like they did a couple of years ago: like shop windows flaunting the same stark white cube aesthetic of the gallery they’re an extension of. Gallery owners probably think implementing a web shop environment cheapens their aura and thus shy away from it. But it’s a way of thinking that is rapidly becoming outdated. If galleries want to appeal to new, young collectors, they’ll have to embrace e-commerce wholeheartedly. With the older gallery-going generation fading away in the near future, it’s actually quite simple: introduce a shopping cart on your website or perish.
(Image at top: Screengrab of Sotheby's Auction House page on eBay. Accessed July 15, 2015)