Amazon’s recently announced fine art marketplace, Amazon Art, is actually the company’s second stab at the space. But the Seattle-based online retail giant is unlikely to let the reasons its 1999 joint-venture with Sotheby’s fizzled and died knock them out of the art market again.
With Amazon Art now offering paintings for sale that you can drop into your cart along with books, DVDs and electronics, should the art world’s big-name auction houses and dealers be worried? Will Amazon Art play Napster and end up killing the established houses and big names of the art world? Or will it serve as a valuable complement to the world of gatekeepers and middlemen?
Or perhaps it’s just possible that we have run up against the limit of what can be bought and sold online. What can’t they sell? One has to wonder. Anyone hoping to anticipate the next inviolable sector to be invaded by Amazon’s sales presence had better start clearing space in their backyard for Amazon Livestock.
Will Amazon Art play Napster and end up killing the established houses and big names of the art world? Or will it serve as a valuable complement to the world of gatekeepers and middlemen?
What makes the online seller think it can apply the same algorithms to art as it does to bestseller paperbacks and rowing machines? Art is supposed to be “priceless”. Is it really a good idea to take the same cavalier “add to cart” approach to buying and selling works of art as we do to mass produced commodities such as iPhone accessories? Art is supposed to be in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?
Early reviews of Amazon Art run the gamut from incredulity to “doomed to fail”. But jokes about snarky customer reviews and free shipping aside, Amazon Art might actually work out, if one assumes that the company has learned from its past mistakes, which is a safe assumption given its proven ability to maintain its relevance using innovation and sheer guile.
Back in 1999, Amazon and Sotheby’s brashly announced a new auction partnership. It folded, quietly and amicably after less than a year. Amazon isn’t likely to take a run at the same game and fail twice. What went wrong?
The partnership was announced with a lot of fanfare. At the time, Amazon was known mainly as an online bookseller who had already sent a chill across the brick-and-mortar landscape for shops who had assumed that customers wouldn’t trade real-life browsing for anonymous online buying. And we all know how that went.
Sotheby’s had only started an online venture of its own five months previous to the Amazon partnership. For them, the writing on the wall read, sink alone or swim with Amazon. So they took the plunge, with Amazon adding an “Art & Collectibles” category to its site through which Sotheby’s merchandise, with its focus on antiques and fine art, would appear.
Earlier that year, a different experiment for Amazon had gone south, as its “Home Living” category was discreetly removed from the site after the partner company Living.com filed for bankruptcy. Surely, that wouldn’t be a problem with Sotheby’s.
Less than a year later, however, customer frustration over shipping issues and problems with having to register their credit cards twice, once on each site, added up to too many irresolvable kinks, and the partnership ended quietly. Since then, however, things have changed, with Amazon moving in to all kinds of spaces, selling food and clothing and music, making it the most formidable retail space on the internet. It seems likely that the Seattle company, after its initial brush with the art market, will prove the naysayers wrong this time.
Still in beta, Amazon’s site is a partnership with more than 150 galleries, with over 40,000 works for sale. The most widely reported fact about the site has been that its most expensive painting, Norman Rockwell’s “Willie Gillis: Package from Home” for $4.85 million. Funny how the moment we see a “sort by” button, we immediately stack by price: “highest first”, please.
The intimidation factor is gone. Walking into an art gallery, no matter how well-intentioned the staff, requires at least a little foreknowledge and can induce status anxiety in the best of us. The buying and selling of art remains one of the most byzantine and difficult to penetrate barriers to entry that exists.
U.K.-based insurance company Hiscox recently reported that galleries who regularly sell works online claimed that a surprising 71% of transactions were made based only on the customer’s viewing a jpeg, with about 25% of those making purchases of £50,000 or more.
“Increasing accessibility can only be a good thing, and we are seeing new players coming into the market from a range of territories, at all ages and price points, which is an exciting – if somewhat unexpected – development,” says Robert Read, Hiscox Global Head of Fine Art.
Christie’s Auction House launched its web sales platform a year ago, and has since conducted 60 online auctions. Asked what differentiates Christie’s from the online retail art experience, CEO Steven Murphy pointed out, “Christie’s does have 250 years of a value and certain imprimatur.”
So, what are the real obstacles to selling art online? When it comes to unique objects, like paintings or sculptures, there are a few things that middlemen are still good for: authentication and vouching for the condition of the object, for example. There’s also responsibility for verification of catalogue details, which Amazon also throws back on its partner galleries. Amazon Art offers its standard terms to sellers, in this case galleries, and puts all responsibility for shipping, insurance, warehousing and authentication on them.
Most worryingly, there are no details whatsoever on provenance. Where does the work come from? Is it stolen? (There is a huge and thriving sub-economy that deals in stolen art, with seriously understaffed law enforcement saddled with the hopeless task of putting a stop to it.) Does Amazon have an oversight mechanism in place for this? No, it relies on the word of its participating galleries. In other words, buyer beware.
Most art collectors aren’t glove-wearing sophisticates who browse fine art fairs at La Defense in Paris each spring, hoping to stumble on a promising young creator. People who buy Thomas Kinkade are not collectors who treat art as an investment. They want something to put in their house that goes well with the couch.
So far, Amazon Art will show you the “frame information” and a “condition note” under the Artwork Specifications. And that’s about it.
On the positive side, the intimidation factor is gone. Walking into an art gallery, no matter how well-intentioned the staff, requires at least a little foreknowledge and can induce status anxiety in the best of us. The buying and selling of art remains one of the most byzantine and difficult to penetrate barriers to entry that exists.
And Amazon Art also offers the visceral thrill of “shopping” for $200,000 Andy Warhol silkscreens. One thing that earning an MFA almost guarantees is an eternal tax bracket low enough that its recipient will never actually own any art themselves. But they can dream, at least, online.
What skeptics also overlook is that, just as Amazon has recently monetized “fan fiction”, there are large, essentially untapped sectors of the economy that don’t carry the kind of prestige bestowed by name publishers or other types of gatekeepers, but are nonetheless very substantial. The art world is full of these.
The fact that Thomas Kinkade is America’s most successful artist proves that most people’s appetite for art is divorced from their appreciation of fine art. Sure, his paintings are syrupy, homespun kitsch, and the art world may sneer. But people love his stuff and they buy it in droves. Most art collectors aren’t glove-wearing sophisticates who browse fine art fairs at La Defense in Paris each spring, hoping to stumble on a promising young creator. People who buy Thomas Kinkade are not collectors who treat art as an investment. They want something to put in their house that goes well with the couch.
Amazon Art has displayed no sense of shame in connecting exactly that type of art with the collectors who want it, just as they have done for amateurs trying to sell vampire romance fiction. And it’s worked for them brilliantly and may work for them this time, now that they aren’t solely focused on the highbrow market, as they had been during their brief partnership with Sotheby’s.
And what are paintings “worth” anyway? It is, in fact, fantastically difficult to establish a “market value” for a work of art. They are, after all, one of a kind objects (even when you’re talking about Warhol silkscreens). Aside from the material value of the canvas and paint, their value comes from the name of the artist and the aesthetic clout each work carries within that œuvre. Yes, I said it. I used the œ-word.
The phenomenon of setting irrational prices are not unique to the art world, however, as evidenced by the case of eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, who took to selling their standard eyewear for $95 after noticing that the same eyeglasses priced at $45 weren’t selling. Why? Because people don’t believe that eyeglasses that cheap could possibly be any good. So they upped the price.
One of the casualties of online services over the years has been the middleman. Easy enough to cheer for the death of a faceless suit, watching the falling silhouette of a middle manager plunging past gleaming buildings during the opening credits of “Mad Men”. Who needs travel or real estate agents, anyway? It is a different matter when you actually need them for something, though, namely their expertise.
When you walk into an electronics shop and are approached by the 19-year-old sales evangelist, your own sense of what constitutes expertise isn’t likely to be shaken. Likewise, you’re still surprised when you occasionally meet a shoe store employee who seems genuinely to care about shoes. These are middlemen you can live without, and therefore a good target for online shopping’s axe. Buying a painting, however, will remain an experience for which you’ll need an art Sherpa, someone with an MFA who can ensure that you don’t get in over your head, and who takes both your financial and your aesthetic investment seriously.
For everyone else, there’s Amazon Art. Does Amazon know art? Maybe, maybe not. But they do know what we like.
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