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. Artnet.com 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.
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
Artnet.com – 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.
ArtJournal.com – 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.
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 http://www.elise.com/web/.