April 16, 2012

Online Art Transactions Gain Momentum

Experts say it’s best to stick with reputable galleries and websites to mitigate the possible risks involved

Don’t be surprised if your art-collecting clients ask your opinion about buying art online. It’s a booming business.

On Christie’s Live Bidding platform, for example, collectors can view auctions and bid on items in real-time. The online site drew 25% more bids in 2011 than in 2010, according to Michael O’Neal, head of digital media for the firm.

Each week New York-based Exhibition A gives collectors the chance to buy one signed limited-edition work from a “highly relevant artist and provide context around that artist and the artwork,” explains Laura Martin, co-founder of the site, in an interview with AdvisorOne.

The company aims to give consumers an entry point to “the often intimidating and ultra-expensive contemporary art world,” Martin adds. It does this by offering artwork priced under $1,000, that’s signed, culturally significant and has the ability to appreciate in value, she explains.

“Our mission is to foster a new segment of art collectors and to shift the focus of a broad base of consumers from just decorating to collecting,” notes Martin.

New art investors are taking the bait. Martin cites an online sale of work by Richard Prince that sold out in 12 minutes with prices of $750 for the first 70 prints sold and $950 for the final 30.

Exhibition A customers are typically between the ages of 25 to 45, she shares, and 15% of sales are shipped to clients outside the United States.

Catherine Levene, co-founder and CEO of Artspace in New York also points to the growing international clientele. “Without any marketing, we’ve sold to collectors all over the world,” she says, in an interview. “We’ve sold to Europe and we’ve sold to Asia, to South America and to Australia.”

The convenience of making online art transactions attracts collectors, Levene notes. Artspace provides an e-commerce site for a global collection of galleries, museums and artists that might be inaccessible otherwise.

“If you don’t live in the city where the gallery is showcasing the art [you want], it’s very difficult to actually get in and buy it,” she explains. “And most people just don’t have the time or capacity to be traveling 24/7 looking at galleries all over the world, so we facilitate that.”

Some collectible items, such as those produced in multiple quantities, are better-suited for online viewing and purchase than one-of-a-kind art pieces. O’Neal uses the example of buying a Rolex Submariner watch via online auction.

There are multiple copies available of most Submariner models, and online images give the prospective buyer a clear indication of the watch’s condition. But it’s difficult to gauge the visceral reaction to a unique item without seeing it in person; in those cases, interested art buyers often combine pre-purchase gallery visits with online bidding.

The convenience of buying online doesn’t relieve collectors of the need to understand what they’re buying, of course, experts say. Plus, bidders should recognize the potential risks of buying collectibles online.

Online-art experts also say it’s best to stick with reputable galleries and websites to mitigate those risks. Buyers also need to review return policies, in case their purchase arrives damaged or they don’t like the actual art once it’s received.

These potential drawbacks are manageable, though, for those willing to do both online and offline research.

“I don’t think this channel creates any greater risk than the others do, at least within the Christie’s umbrella,” says O’Neal. “I think we always will caution perspective buyers to sort of do their homework, and homework, I think, means a lot of different things.

“It means using our website to familiarize yourself with the category, with that particular lot, perhaps purchasing a catalog or, again, reading the condition of a particular object through the website, doing that homework upfront,” he concludes.

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