Art collectors buying more online

23 December 2013


A recent report suggests that more and more art collectors are spending vast sums of money on 'sight unseen' online purchases, says art guru Colin Gleadell. Colin  has been writing about the ups and downs of the global art market for 27 years and is a regular contributor to a number of notable art world publications.

Contemporary art collectors are increasingly skipping the first-hand physical experience of viewing art in galleries, and buying “sight unseen” through internet images, according to a report by Hiscox, the art insurance specialists. Everyone is aware that the internet plays an important part in the art market – as a research vehicle, promotional tool and bidding mechanism at auction – but the report came as a surprise to those who believe that sight unseen online buying is restricted to low-value, limited-edition prints and photographs, where seeing the actual object before buying is less important than with higher value, unique works of art.

More than 200 international collectors and 56 contemporary art galleries were canvassed by Art Tactic, a company that specialises in contemporary and emerging art market research. They confirmed that unique paintings and drawings, as opposed to limited-edition prints and photographs, accounted for 53 per cent of their online sales. In terms of price ranges, the survey found that 26 per cent of collectors had spent £50,000 or more buying a unique work of art either through a jpeg emailed image, an online auction, or a gallery website.

The report also said that online art buying was not being driven solely by the young. In fact, 55 per cent of respondents in the 65-plus age group said they had bought art directly online, and 18 per cent that they would happily spend more than £50,000 online on a single art work. A good example would be Hiscox’s honorary president, Robert Hiscox.

“I love bidding online at auction,” he says. “It’s so convenient. I also buy sight unseen from digital images sent by galleries, but I usually know the galleries and the work of the artists, so there is an element of trust and confidence built in.” His view fits with 86 per cent of buyers, who said that the reputation of the seller was the most important factor in determining where they bought online.

Robert Read, head of fine art at Hiscox, says that many of the lower-valued works bought for the Hiscox corporate collection (example illustrated) have been bought, sight unseen, from galleries online. The research, however, was commissioned after a number of start-up online platforms approached him about the insurance risks of trading online. “Unlike your small local gallery, the online platform has maximum, global visibility, so it needs to be properly vetted, especially for older art where defective title and forgery can be issues,” says Read.

Looking at the future, the report predicts increasing online activity. Galleries that prefer the traditional, personal sales methods are in a Catch-22 situation because, the report says, 72 per cent of online sales are made to new collectors, a breed which all galleries are constantly looking out for. Fifty-nine per cent of galleries therefore have an e-commerce facility on their websites, and subscribe to the ever increasing array of online platforms that aim to attract a global audience of potential buyers to their websites.

In scenes that are reminiscent of the dotcom boom, barely a month has gone by in the past two years without some new online art sales platform or merger being announced. The level of venture capital invested in the start-ups is staggering, ranging from $4 million for the online auction platform Paddle 8, to $12.2 million for Artspace, which offers mainly limited-edition prints online, and $22.7 million for the recently launched Berlin-based online auction business Auctionata.

For artists looking to capitalise on this growing market, check out Artists Info's Insider Secrets to Selling Art Online video below.

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