Online Art Sales

During the height of the Internet frenzy the art world went online. Sotheby’s, Butterfields and countless galleries poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building online auction sites and virtual galleries. Fast forward a few years later and most of those sites are gone. Sotheby’s shuttered their online auction site. Ebay sold off Butterfield’s. gave up conducting auctions and now focuses on selling access to their art auction database. Many galleries still have an online presence, but what’s really selling?

A look to Ebay can provide some answers. The largest marketplace in the world, online or otherwise, Ebay auctions can give us a snapshot of what a market is really like, much like a focus group in Ohio. Trying to analyze all of Ebay’s art auctions is a formidable task, so this research focused on only auctions classified as “paintings” and only paintings classified as “1950-present”. Here is some insight that can be gleaned from a quick study of Ebay art auctions.

1. More than 90% of art listings are in the sub $100 range. Ebay lists approximately 600,000 post-1950 paintings per year, 90 percent of which sell for or are bid at less than $100. After $100, the listings and the sales drop off very quickly. See this graph for details. See this graph for closer detail of listings from $100 to $5000.

2. The lower the price of the art, the higher the number of bids, and the greater percentage of completed sales. Most of the art listed over $300 never gets even one bid. Only 10 percent of the works listed for over $1000 get bid upon. While close to 50% of the works priced from $300-$399 receive bids. Completed sales in the plus $300 range tend to average around 80% of the number of bids. So, we can infer that the lower the price of the art, the higher the percentage of sales. View graph.

3. Landscapes make up the bulk of the subject matter of what is sold. Across the board, landscapes make up more than 50% of the artwork sold. View graph. The “other” category in the graph consists mostly of animals and ethnic subjects. The category “abstract” would be close to what one might consider modern art.

4. Many artists are now representing themselves directly, without going through a gallery. These artists tend to be on the low end of the art scale, the sub-$300 pieces. But given that a gallery is only going to give them 50% of the sale anyway, young artists who are more web-savy may be better off creating a following online, especially if they don’t live close to a major metropolitan area.

5. Brand names sell better. Kincaid fairy houses and Nierman abstracts sell well. Known artists tend to get bids, while unknown artists, especially at the high end, do not.

So what is keeping buyers away from the high end online art market? A few thoughts. The biggest risk for an online buyer of a painting is what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. With paintings especially, getting a computer screen to accurately represent a piece’s color is very difficult. Although almost all of the online dealers have money back guarantees, it is a pain to pack up and return something. At the lower end, sub $300, a buyer may be more willing to take the chance and even if it isn’t exactly what was expected, it didn’t cost that much. Also, paintings are almost always one-of-a-kind, more difficult to brand than prints or photographs. It’s harder to know the value of what you’re getting.

Online Art Sites – Lists sites of 1300 member art galleries, works of over 16,000 artists, maintains database of fine art auction sales since 1989 which a subscriber can use to help appraise art.

Mixed Greens – NYC gallery site with art from up-and-coming artists and a gift registry.

Bonhams and Butterfields – formerly owned by Ebay, now only accepts absentee bids online. – Art journal with a good article on Online Art Sales.

Ebay Art Auctions – the largest art market in the world.

Art Addict – Paige West’s new weblog on art collecting.

Other links:

You’ve Seen the E-mail, Now Buy the Art – article in the New York Times about buying high-end contemporary art online (February 4, 2007)

This article is written by Elise Bauer and licensed under a Creative Commons License with some rights reserved. If reposting this article on a website, please host all graphics on your own site and link back to this article at

7 thoughts on “Online Art Sales

  1. i don’t understand how you undertook your research and produced such detailed graphs. Could you explain the process a little more?

  2. John – Ebay lists the number of completed auctions over the prior 30 days for any category or search term. When drilling into more detail I spent several hours counting items. The graphs I created on Excel.

  3. I have shown my paintings on the internet for 5 years. I must be on at least 30 different sites. In total I have sold 5 paintings in that time. I have heard that is a miracle in itself. I hope no artist thinks that if he, or she pays to be on a site that will equal sales, it will not.

  4. I’ve researched this issue at some length as well, and I think the Ebay model for selling orignal art fails. I’d be much more interested in how well is doing. They sell juried art over the internet. I think that the best model has been put forward by Mixed Greens. They have a virtual gallery to compliment their regular gallery. They also do a lot of outreach with art parties where either artists or gallery owners (I don’t know which) will teach a group of people about art.

    I am sure that there is a good business model here somewhere. I know too many young professionals who spend hundreds of dollars on meals, vacations, furniture, computers and the like, but frame posters to decorate their homes. I think they are just intimidated by galleries and art snobs. These are people who are good at what they do, and can’t stand the idea of being talked down to by a gallery owner. (Gallery owners don’t often do this, but I think there is this assumed elitism.) They need to be made comfortable, then plugged into some affordable art.

  5. I used to sell my artwork on eBay in Australia and then I started selling my work on eBay in the UK and America. After a while people started writing about my art work in blogs etc and the sales started happening directly. I no longer list my work for sale on eBay even though it worked for me. This is a good article worth reading if you are having trouble selling your work on eBay.


  6. Very good study. I have been dealing art for 5 years now and have come to the same conclusion. Art doesnt sell on the net.

    Some collectors dont even takethe time to look at the works online, they want to see them live directly.

    Unless of course you sell them under 300$ but thats not my business. It doesnt pay the rent!

  7. With all things considered, ebay is a benefit to the art world. Ebay was not designed to be the worlds finest market for art sales. It’s simply a market place that offered a venue for artists. Ebay has always been, and always will be, a buyer’s market -not a seller’s market. The average Joe looks to ebay as means to buy things cheaper than he can get it on the shelf in his home town. This same Average Joe may occasionally take a peak in the art catagories, as well, and discover that he can own original art just like the rich people on tv -a thought that never occured to him before. Now multiply Average Joe by one million and guess what you have? A whole new art market that never existed before. And, yes, there’s money to made there. You simply have to adopt your sales stratagy.

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