Big players send online art sales soaring

As trust in internet art sites grows, novices and collectors are becoming more comfortable buying on the web.

Auction house Sotheby’s made a deal in July last year with eBay to provide live streaming of its auctions to reach the folks who regularly shop there. It provides a way for more people worldwide to access art and learn about the buying process.

EBay had tried to enter the art market before. In 1999, the company bought Butterfield & Butterfield, one of the largest traditional auction houses, for $260 million, promising to use technology to bring fine art to the masses. It seems that experiment was premature.

Sotheby’s tried to sell on eBay in 2002, but failed to generate profits. Now, however, the scene has shifted and Sotheby’s has held two auctions on the site. Sotheby’s has allowed internet bidding through its own website for years, but branching out with eBay is starting to work, especially for photography, prints and lower priced items.

Josh Pullan, Sotheby’s e-commerce director, said at Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sale that the auction house had designed its section of the eBay website to highlight works of $25,000 or less, in contrast to Sotheby’s own site, where top billing usually goes to the more expensive offerings.

To be sure, high-value art is still bought in the old-fashioned way, with collectors attending previews and eyeing the art in person. There is also the excitement generated at a live auction, with the bidding going ever higher, that is missing from internet buying.

But the shift online is speeding up.

Online sales last year accounted for nearly $3.6 billion, or 6% of global art and antiques sales of about $55 billion, with most sales between $1,000 and $50,000 according to a March 2015 report from the European Fine Art Foundation in Maastricht.

Christie’s has an online only site. China’s Alibaba has entered the arena.

Many other art-selling sites have popped up or expanded to include fine art. Amazon is in the game as well as 1stdibs, which started as a service for dealers, Artsy, Daily Paint Works and Paddle8. Each has a different sales model and classifications of art, but all offer ways to view and buy art online. They also offer educational tips, backgrounds of artists and galleries, snippets of art history and information about art categories.

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