FINANCIALLY, the internet has been no friend to the music, newspaper or book businesses. But it’s doing wonders for the art world. According to a recent report by art insurers Hiscox, the value of the global online fine art market is set to more than double, from an estimated $1.57 billion in 2013 to $3.76bn by 2018.
Confidence in the future growth of this market has been displayed by Twitter’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey, who helped capitalise Artsy, a site which aims ‘to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an internet connection’. Organisations which have invested heavily in the sector include Google and Amazon, both of which launched virtual art platforms in the past 12 months. The latter’s site, Amazon Art, was the forum on which a Norman Rockwell oil recently sold for $4.85m within minutes of going on sale.
Further positive predictions for the future of online art sales came courtesy of Deloitte’s recently published 2013 Art and Finance report according to which “the art world is moving towards the internet... a development from which the industry can only benefit”. Nobody could deny that online art sales attract new buyers — individuals for whom buying art the traditional way would have zero appeal. Buying online also appeals to first-time buyers with limited budgets who are willing to buy the work of the emerging artists that are showcased on so many online sites. For those who for geographical or psychological reasons would never buy from high-street galleries, it’s the obvious way to shop. That virtual art sites attract new buyers, many of whom are millennials who simply prefer to shop online, has been confirmed by a recent ArtTactic survey which found that 72% of online contemporary art sales are made by new collectors.
It remains to be seen whether art sites will in time be the death-knell of brick galleries, but if current trends continue, that won’t happen anytime soon. Some of the sites, such as Artsy and Artspace, direct buyers towards high-street galleries and auction houses. Others such as New Irish Art, which was set up 14 years ago by Irishman Tom Hogarty, direct buyers to the websites of the artists showcased. “While we don’t provide an online sales service, all 540 of the artists whose work we show are willing to sell online,” he says.
It’s Hogarty’s view that galleries and sales rooms can be intimidating for first-time art collectors. “The first thing people meet there is a barrier; thereafter it’s all barriers,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why online art sales are the way forward.” Despite that belief, he’s not in favour of buying original art online. “Buying online is like buying blind. You only see a hint, a trace, an indication of the work. You can’t appreciate it for what it really is. Those who want a guarantee that original art is real as opposed to fake should buy from artists or brick galleries, some of which offer a buy-back option after a 12 or 24 month period.”
Given the cost factor, it’s natural that many first-time art buyers purchase prints instead of originals. The online demand for this type of work is borne out by Edith Rohu, who set up Art Click, an Irish art site, last September. “While we sell both originals and prints, the latter are by far the most popular purchase, probably because it’s easier to make a quick decision to spend €50 online than it is to spend maybe €4,000 on an original artwork,” she says.
While that’s true, not all buyers are so cautious. According to the ArtTactic survey, original paintings and drawings account for 53% of online sales. One who has vast experience of this market is Rebecca Wilson, Saatchi Art’s chief curator and director of artist development who told the Irish Examiner: “In the past few years we’ve seen a tremendous growth in the demand for buying original works online.”
Another who is seeing increased online demand for original artwork is Skibbereen-based fine art auctioneer, Morgan O’Driscoll. Since he held his first online auction in October 2011, his business has trebled, with most buyers being Irish people living abroad.
“Our business is growing because our online buyers have confidence in us. We know this because 70% of our business is repeat.”
Dublin-based artist John Nolan is less than enthused about online art sales. “My work sells really well, but that’s because of the loyalty of my long-term customers rather than online sales. The last time I sold something through my website was three months ago. That was a print and even though it cost just €85 the buyer called out to my studio to see it before buying. As for original paintings, most won’t buy those online unless the artist is well known. Purchasers want to see the painting, lift it up, look at the back of it; establish that it is a unique piece. They want to examine it physically. Buying original art is not the same as buying a tin of beans. These are very personal pieces of work.” Nobody could deny that he’s right. As to why he decided to sell his work online, Nolan explains: “A lot of the galleries I was with shut down, so I decided four or five years ago to sell my art through my website.” Is it easier to sell through a gallery? “Not really. In my experience, galleries are protective of themselves. They’re not helpful to artists in that they don’t try to reduce the commission they take in times of recession.”
Dublin-based artist, Gerard Byrne, currently sells his work through his Dalkey gallery. His pictures, like those of John Nolan, hang in prestigious public collections in Ireland and overseas. “Through the gallery I’ve sold really well, particularly to the overseas market,” he says. So positive has the response been from the US-based Irish community, that I plan to work from there for a period in the near future.”
Given that he clearly has no difficulty selling his work through the gallery why is he now planning to sell online? “There was a time when visitors to my gallery would ask: ‘Do you have a brochure?’ Not anymore. Now they ask: ‘Do you have a website?’ It’s as if having an online presence lends a sense of validation.”
What the customer wants the customer gets. But when you’re Bob Dylan you can do what you like. He recently made his New York art gallery debut the traditional way when his collection of paintings, drawings and limited editions: The Drawn Blank Series was exhibited at The Ross Art Group gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue.
“This has been quite exciting for us,” gallery creative director, Liz Tepper, said. “His work, which ranges in price from $2,500 to $400,000, is being sold exclusively through the gallery and not online.” For artists everywhere the times they are a-changing, but not for the legendary Dylan, who at the grand old age of 73 seems destined to remain — whether online or off — forever young.
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