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Highsnobiety Commentary August, 7 2013

Customers Who Bought This Also Bought: Warhol, Pollock, Rauschenberg

Leading online retailer Amazon just introduced its latest product segment, fine art. Customers can choose from a wide range of original artworks from several thousand artists and while they’re at it, order the matching coffee table book. The latest step of Amazon’s venture to supply every demand might be another sign that the art market finally heads online. However, Amazon is a bit late to the party.

The online retailer teamed up with 150 galleries and dealers to launch the beta version of Amazon Art, a marketplace that holds 400,000 works from 4,500 artists. As of now, most dealers are based in the United States, but galleries from Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have also partnered up to make art accessible to the masses. Prices start as low as ten bucks (for a screenprinted dollar bill) and top out at $4,850,000, listed as the value of a Norman Rockwell oil painting. As a matter of course, quality varies accordingly.

Amazon’s art segment adopted some of the website’s powerful search utilities. Artwork can be filtered by media, subject, size and – of course – price. It’s also possible to look for only blue paintings that match your living room’s wallpaper, and while you choose a piece for the right spot on your wall, you can also decide to display only search results for framed artworks. So far, staff picks convey only a dull impression of what’s hot at any given time, but once you choose an artist, you’re free to buy the whole series. Too bad there’s no Prime shipping for fine art.

Image: Rockwell Museum

But there are also doubts. Online retail of fine art is still met with much skepticism. Art is best viewed in person, that is, in the gallery. While video art and photography might still be enjoyable on a screen, the digital world makes a true and intense experience of paintings, sculptures, installations and more, impossible. After all, paintings sell best and video art makes up only a minor fraction in revenues. But with a young generation of aspiring and spirited collectors arising, it’s worth a try to meet them where they feel at home: online. They are not only accustomed to the possibilities of the Internet, but are also increasingly interested in art. Good pieces by young artists are available at reasonable prices, further giving more of their peers the ability to collect. Art dealers eager to break into this market are already experienced in processing their transactions online. However, until now, they neither needed nor asked Amazon to establish the infrastructure.

Major competitors like Artsy, Saatchi Online and VIP Art Fair distributed the market amongst themselves a long time ago. The former has steadily been growing since its launch in 2010, and by then, Charles Saatchi’s London gallery had already been selling artworks at its online marketplace for four years. The first online art fair, VIP, began operation in the same year. Since then, international dealers and artists from virtually all ranks gave these new channels of distribution at least a try. While online sale is still a novelty the art world approaches only hesitantly, dealers and buyers were sure that new players would take their chance, but ultimately, many of them would find it hard to assert themselves in such a competitive market. Amazon is the first big fish in the pond that actually has the money to fiercely fight for it. It’s just not sure yet if it has the power.

In a business that relies so much on expertise, trust and reputation, a retailer that sells kitschy books, cheap household appliances and consumer electronics might not have the best chance. Amazon establishes its expertise in many areas including efficient logistics, prompt dispatch and good customer service. The latter might actually prove to be a risk that reputation-aware gallerists take note of. Amazon Art adopts the same customer review system that was a rich source for both recommendations and Internet humor. For instance, a customer, or would­‐be customer, has already complained about cracks in a Monet painting and was shocked to learn it was a used product. While brick and mortar galleries still primarily sell their artists in close customer contact at conventional art fairs, many of them might not see a reason to put their long-built reputation in to jeopardy. In a word, brand loyalty is their most valuable asset.

Therefore, it comes as no revelation that at the moment, Amazon Art partners almost exclusively with small dealers, many of them seldom or never heard of. Online auction house Paddle8 is one of the bigger affiliates who is “excited to list our artwork on Amazon to make it more convenient for our existing clientele.” This clientele buys art at their auctions knowing that all proceeds benefit non-profit and cultural institutions. Expanding their reach for a good cause is their key interest, a goal for which Amazon Art can lend a hand. Apart from such fundraising dealers, the marketplace mostly attracts edition shops, modest art merchants and a wide range of artworks that some would consider amateurish by branch standards.

For Amazon Art to gain more credit, the prestigious art dealers have to join the marketplace. Blue-Chip galleries are notorious for staying out of online markets, which is why Artsy’s success to win over some for its own business was nothing short of a surprise. That’s where the big money is. Still, there’s plenty to earn with smaller partners.

No doubt, Amazon will aim to attract more dealers to join their marketplace. Current affiliates are mostly confined to the United States. Once Amazon Art reaches for the German, French, Swiss, and even Chinese galleries, it can significantly broaden its scope. Moreover, if Amazon gains a certain reputation, we might see another big player on the online art market and, maybe some day, purchase Andy Warhol prints through 1-click order just to have it delivered by the mailman the next day.

Selectism