Art 'sold more online than in galleries'

By Alex Hudson
BBC Click


The art industry is one of the last creative industries to make the digital move - but, with more people buying art online without ever seeing it in real life, it could be that times are already changing.

If visitors to London want to see contemporary art, the first port of call has traditionally been the Tate Modern. In 2012, a record 5.3 million visitors journeyed through its doors.

More people in the UK visit art galleries and museums than attend Premier League football matches but record numbers are flocking to the internet too. And buying art is the becoming an industry norm.

Media caption,
The detectives spotting the photographic fakes

In an industry worth an estimated £40bn, that's quite a big business to tap into.

The online art market is already estimated to be growing by 20% each year.

"We sell more art in a month online than most bricks-and-mortar galleries do in a year," says Rebecca Wilson, a director of Saatchi Gallery.

"It's because of a huge international audience, a lot of work and a team of curators making sure very good work rises to the fore."

More art is now being viewed online than as originals and, with more and more galleries showcasing online rather than on walls, is the importance of a physical gallery being lost?

"Even before online, a majority of their sales, even in the high-end galleries happened at art fairs, not in the galleries," says Jonas Almgren, chief executive of art website Artfinder.

"The physical space is diminishing in importance.

"Contrary to looking at the White Cubes of the world - that all start opening more gallery spaces - many of the next tier of galleries actually shut down or shrunk down their gallery space."

Yet it's not only the middle-market that is using the web to attract buyers, and Artfinder is by no means the only way to find art.

Sight unseen

Website Artsy is currently exclusively promoting original Andy Warhol pieces, an idea very unlikely a few years ago.

Image caption,
Art galleries have come a long way since the 1950s

While to some, $20,000 (£13,000) may seem a snip for a Polaroid photo, it's certainly a move away from traditional ways of art being displayed and the idea that only cheap posters can be sold online.

The big surprise is the amount of art sold "sight unseen". This means the art is sold from a traditional gallery without the buyer ever having seen the art in real life.

According to analysis from insurers Hiscox, about 90% of galleries regularly sell art to clients on the basis of a digital image only.

"Art is so much better live than online which is, of course, something we struggle to overcome," says Mr Almgren.

"Once you buy it though, art collection is addictive. The magic moment happens when you unwrap it and see it rather than in a gallery."

And the stereotype of younger people being more tech-savvy is, according to Hiscox, simply not true. Most collectors aged over 65 had bought art directly online.

Image caption,
A number of people behind art sites still think there is an important role for galleries to play

"There's a long-standing elitist idea in the art world," says Ms Wilson.

"When online art started, people were unsure about buying shoes online, so the idea that you could buy art online was unheard of. That's totally shifted.

"I feel it's a parallel universe to the very traditional gallery and museum structure which has dominated the art world. It is causing a big shift but I don't think that one will eradicate the other."

And the upper echelons of the art world still do not seem to be willing to embrace change as quickly.

"The high-end is 200 galleries, 2,000 artists and maybe 2,000 buyers," says Mr Almgren.

"That's a large part of the market because it's very top heavy but it's not the largest part. It's much broader."

But art is an industry not always filled with success stories.

US art site 20x200 is currently offline and trying to secure new funding. Keen to point out they are "not gone, just resting", the risks for the hundreds of online art ventures started in recent years is clear to see.

200,000 pictures

With all this competition from online, big retailers and even the increasing number of restaurants and cafes selling art, could it be the case that the physical gallery ever vanishes?

"I don't think so," says Mr Almgren.

Image caption,
The art displayed in galleries is regularly very different from work sold online

"There's going to be even more need for people to explain what really is good."

And with the volume of art now available to browse, curating is a difficult challenge. As an example, Saatchi Online currently has about 200,000 different works for sale.

"We really want to make online like a proper gallery, it's just online," says Ms Wilson.

"I look at every single piece of art uploaded every day. It's a major job but incredibly exciting and we work with other curators to bridge that gap between the online and gallery world."

If that gap is to be bridged, the art community must be happier moving even further away from the physical gallery towards high-resolution images.

"Art is still way behind fashion, where the change has largely already happened," says Mr Almgren.

"I think it will move online faster. Of the people that bought in April [2013], 14% have already bought again in a month and a half. It's just remarkable and I can't quite explain it."

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