Art’s clicking

Unlike recorded music or books, fine art has always been somewhat resistant to the march of e-commerce. But now, with several dedicated start-ups setting shop—and established players, too, giving the required push—is the art market finally biting the digital bait?

CHRISTIE’S, THE London-headquartered fine arts auction house—considered one of the oldest (it opened its doors to the public in 1766) and also the world’s largest—marked its first ‘online-only’ sale in December 2011. The digital component, which ran parallel to the live auctions of the hugely successful ‘Elizabeth Taylor Collection’ at Christie’s, New York, reportedly generated over 57,000 bids and $9.5 million in additional sales.

“Since then, the number of online-only sales has grown and these are frequently used as an effective means of offering properties across a range of price points, allowing us to provide the same high-quality lots—catalogued by the same team—but at prices lower than in traditional sales,” says Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s international head of department, contemporary Indian art.

More recently, in June this year, Christie’s held a successful online-only sale of Indian artworks to coincide with its London auctions in the same category. “Given how tech-savvy India is, our clients have embraced this new means of engaging with the art we sell. They have also shown that they are happy to bid online in our traditional auctions—one of the leading lots in our first sale in India, held in Mumbai in 2013, was bought by an online bidder,” adds Klein.

Despite its slow march in the digital world and the relatively ‘premium’ tag attached to it, the art market is slowly showing signs of living the e-commerce dream. In the past couple of years, several e-commerce start-ups, and established players as well, have taken the online route to sell art and acquire a place in people’s living rooms.

Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of leading Indian auction house Saffronart, explains: “We’ve been in the online space for almost 15 years now and it’s one space that’s been really doing good. Online auctions are global and easy—anyone can access them. Also, art being the ‘visual’ product it is, it’s more convenient for buyers to see and make decisions online. It’s a ‘transact-able’ medium, especially if you’ve built expertise around it.”

The rise of art portals

Unlike recorded music or books, which are now bought routinely by millions of people from e-retailers, fine art has been somewhat resistant to the march of e-commerce—or so it seems if one were to look at past statistics. As per a report published by the Netherlands-based The European Fine Art Foundation on March 11 this year, online transactions contributed just about 6% of the record 51 billion euros, or about $59 billion, of art sold by auction houses and dealers in 2014.

The explanation for this probably could come from the fact that the art market is seen as an extension of the luxury goods industry, which, with its relatively high prices and expensive-to-run stores, has had a resistance to online sales. In a report released in April last year, McKinsey & Company said e-commerce represented just about 4% of all luxury goods sold in 2013. Even so, the American multinational management consulting firm added that sales in the online luxury sector were growing at least twice as fast as their offline equivalents.

It is with this premise that several online marketplaces have sprung up globally, as well as in the country, to cater to art aficionados, who are becoming more and more comfortable buying online today. Vishal Singh, who co-founded ArtZolo, an online global art exchange platform, in January last year, says: “The Indian artscape is at an interesting crossroads. With the burgeoning online art market, the boundaries between art and art aficionados have blurred, facilitating easier accessibility. ArtZolo is set to further revolutionise the art ecosystem in the country by paving the way for artists, as well as buyers into the art market.” At its launch, ArtZolo had just about 40-50 artists on its platform. Today, that number stands well over 600. “Most of the artists that we host are the ones who have shown their works at the national and/or international levels. We are focused on paintings at the moment,” he adds.

Another player in the online space for art, Artflute, was set up in 2008 at a time when artists were working mainly with gallery spaces. “Since galleries set the prices for their art, artists didn’t have a way of ensuring they got a good price for their works. Artflute was set up with the intention of offering a transparent online marketplace for artists, where they could price their own artworks and the commission earned was transparent,” says Aditya Pisupati, CEO and co-founder of Artflute.

Artflute hosts art from a wide range of contemporary artists from all over the world—emerging as well as established—on its website. Over the last year, the company has seen an eight-fold increase in its revenues and expects to end this year with business close to a million dollars. Its average ticket size is R15,000, Pisupati offers.

Talking about the advantages, Pisupati says the online space is a booming market for art because of a variety of factors. “Firstly, newcomers and seasoned art collectors have access to an unrestricted global and diverse range of artworks. Second, they can completely bypass the by-invite-only world of art auctions and often intimidating world of galleries. Lastly, it is extremely convenient to sit right at home, check out and buy art, and even get it exchanged if it’s not what you want,” he adds.

Launched in December last year with 18 sellers and 200-odd products, WorldArtCommunity, another peer-to-peer marketplace for artistic creations, has grown rapidly with over 400 partner artists and over 6,000 unique creations on board at the moment. “We empower artists and designers to create their own space and commercialise their creations to the discerning audience.  As they set up their shops with us, they get the chance to choose the look and feel of their shop, talk about themselves, link up their social presence, upload and manage product inventory and even offer promotions,” explains Shobhit Arora, founder, WorldArtCommunity.

The portal caters to artistic creations across lifestyle categories to include art (paintings, photography, sculpture and pottery) and design (apparel, accessories and home décor).

However, like every other sector, online art, too, is not without its share of problems. “The biggest challenge we are facing currently is bringing designers who are more creative to the platform. Finding exceptional talent is difficult,” says Bharat Sethi, founder of PosterGully. Founded in 2013, PosterGully enables artists, designers and anyone who holds original visual content to seamlessly contribute and merchandise designs in a variety of products, such as phone cases, art prints, home decor, clothing, etc, to consumers globally. In June, the New Delhi-based company raised $160,000 in funding from a group of angel investors. Accelerated at GSF, a specialised accelerator programme for mobile start-ups, PosterGully also got initial backing by industry veterans like Murugavel J, Dinesh Agarwal, Anupam Mittal, Roshan Abbas, Vijay Shekhar Sharma and Rajesh Sawhney.

End of live shows?

Despite the convenience and flexibility that online platforms offer to consumers and businesses by simply making the process of discovery easier and buying faster, die-hard art enthusiasts still believe the atmosphere of a live show is something different—it has pieces of artwork, people and the confidence of an open marketplace. But will online art galleries dilute the essence of experiencing art in person?

“Live shows can’t disappear just like that. The Internet can only supplement them. The offline and online spaces have to work together and that’s when the medium (online) will really work,” says Vazirani of Saffronart, adding: “It’s a combination of several factors. For instance, the live shows that we have can also be witnessed online. You can also experience and bid online. So there’s a convergence of sorts here. The world is moving towards all of the mediums working together.”

Klein of Christie’s says it is important to remember the importance of the traditional auction and to understand what makes it different from the online version. “The majority of our clients still prefer to attend sales, meet other collectors, spend time with works on offer and talk to specialists, asking advice about condition, provenance and how a work might fit within their collection. They also love to bid for their chosen work in the sales room. They love the excitement of an auction room. Online auctions are often more convenient, but being there yourself is such a buzz,” she adds.

Christie’s is the only international auction house to have sales in India. This year, it will hold its third auction in the country. The next South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sales is in New York this month and its annual India sale will be held in Mumbai in December. “These sales are carefully curated. Often leading works are exhibited around the world and the research and catalogue notes are extensive. This approach remains at the core of our business,” explains Klein.

Even online players agree that traditional and online auctions can’t replace each other. “It is just about preferences and status quo. If you consider the electronic market, which is very prevalent online, there are still takers for offline markets. Live shows are geared towards hype and spending. In most cases, if the artist is known, his or her style and pattern would be too,” says Singhal of Artzolo.

However, Pisupati of Artflute says: “When you walk into a gallery, there is only so much art that you can see. But when it comes to online marketplaces, by virtue of the sheer number of artworks curated, it is far easier to spot talented and emerging artists than in art auctions or galleries, where access and information are limited in their reach.”

As per Klein of Christie’s, there is no ‘typical’ buyer for art and what suits one client may not appeal to another.

“What the success of the online platform shows is that both types of platforms—online and traditional sales—have their followers, many of whom are happy to transact in both spaces,” she says. At the moment, though, it may be widely assumed that e-commerce may not transform the art market in the way it has transformed others, but the spirit will remain the same. “We still bring the most beautiful works available in each category to our clients—even if the tools over the years may have changed,” Klein adds.

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First published on: 06-09-2015 at 00:06 IST