Trust and reputation more than technology or pricing are the secret to online success for galleries, reveals a new study carried out for art insurers Hiscox by analysts ArtTactic.
The online art trade 2013 also shows that an increasing number of people are prepared to spend £50,000 or more on a single item online without seeing it "in the flesh" first.
The study, published last week, focuses on the habits of collectors and strategies of galleries in the Contemporary art market, highlighting a number of factors that point to the breaking down of resistance to trading even fairly high-priced items online. In fact, paintings have surpassed prints, photographs and limited editions in popularity among online buyers responding in the survey.
Polling the views of 231 buyers, more than half of whom spend over £75,000 a year on art, as well as 58 international galleries, when it came to buyers ArtTactic found that:
• 64% had bought art online sight unseen* with little or no interaction with the dealer;
• 26% of collectors had spent £50,000 or more on art online, with a quarter of these willing to spend more than £50,000 on a single item online in future;
• 80% of buyers saw issues of provenance and authenticity as the main barrier to buying online; and
• 65% of buyers saw the reputation of the seller as equally important.
As far as dealers were concerned:
• 59% of galleries had plans to implement an e-commerce strategy within 12 months; and
• 89% of galleries regularly sell art on the basis of a digital image only.
It is perhaps less of a surprise that selling online is seen as key to engaging younger buyers. Just under half (43%) of the 25-29 year olds polled had bought art online sight unseen, with 67% of the same age range saying they were highly likely to buy art online within the next year. However, the big spenders online are those aged 45 to 49, more than 40% of whom have already spent over £50,000 online.
Age No Barrier
Older buyers turn out to be no slouches: 55% of the over 65s had bought art directly online, with 82% of these saying they had done so on the basis of a digital image only. A fifth of them had spent more than £50,000 so far, with 18% saying they would be willing to spend more than £50,000 on a single artwork in future.
The survey also showed differences in behaviour and preferences between the sexes: 70% of men responding said they had bought art online sight unseen compared to 55% of women. Women showed a preference for using gallery websites (52%) and online galleries (31%), with the respective figures for men at 48% and 22%. On the other hand, men showed a clear preference for online auctions at 56% compared to only 26% of women.
Whatever the changing habits of buyers, Hiscox and ArtTactic noted that 78% of galleries polled did not provide the option for buying solely online with little or no engagement with the gallery.
"Part of this resistance has to do with the importance placed on close personal relationships with clients and the role of the client in the traditional endorsement process of art," the survey concluded.
It's a view supported by the countless opinions expressed to ATG over the years that building client relationships and a solid database of contacts is essential to the ongoing success of any dealership.
The recent debate on our Letters and News pages (see ATG Nos 2078 and 2079) shows how strongly these views are held, with leading Mayfair dealer Richard Green saying: "Technology is surely a tool which can widen our audience and possibilities, but it does not replace the first-hand viewing experience."
Other recent trends also indicate the growing strength of online potential, the survey argues.
These include the increasing number of super-rich investors in online galleries and other art-based businesses, especially those who have made their money from online ventures such as Twitter, LinkedIn and PayPal.
Taking the recent TEFAF report's valuation of the global art as $56bn, ArtTactic estimated that online sales across all platforms for 2012 were $870m and will rise to $2.1bn by 2017.
Technology has also enabled artists to cut out the middle man and sell direct to collectors via online portals, while the development of online auctions has become one of the most competitive areas of activity between the world's leading salerooms.
Despite the growing confidence with web-based art businesses, ArtTactic note that not being able to view or handle works directly before buying remains the biggest hurdle to online purchasing for 79% of buyers polled. Almost half (48%) still prefer to visit a bricks-and-mortar gallery to buy if they have the option to do so.
Although it is not at the top of their list, technology and pricing are still important factors, the former vital in the rendering of artworks, including their colours, accurately online.
Even where galleries are largely using online exhibitions for marketing purposes only, with clients then visiting the gallery or completing purchases via the phone, they expect more business to be conducted solely online in future.
* For the purposes of the survey sight unseen means acquiring the work without seeing the physical object. The purchase is based on a digital view only.