Now everybody is just a click away from being a collector

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:57pm

When Judy DeFord, a retired high school art teacher in Seattle, received an e-mail from Catherine Person Gallery recently, she saw a familiar name on its list of artists: Allyce Wood, a former student.

"I thought, 'Great!,' and I decided to make a purchase," DeFord says.

But instead of making the 10-minute trip to the gallery, she logged on to Amazon Art, a fine-arts and collectibles category introduced in August. She clicked on images by Wood, selected a pen-and-ink drawing of an unearthed plant root titled Excavated and, with a few clicks of the mouse, bought it for US$160.

"I bought it through Amazon because it was quick and easy," DeFord says.

Amazon is betting that millions of people will happily buy paintings and prints in the same way they now buy shoes or books or kitchen appliances online. To entice them, it conducted a far-reaching art dragnet, approaching galleries in the US and a few foreign countries with a simple proposition: put your work on our site and, for a percentage commission on each sale, we will expose you to our 100 million customers in North America and 200 million customers worldwide.

Because Amazon does not disclose sales figures, it is unclear whether this gamble is paying off.

Kate Nielsen, a Brooklyn artist, got the call in July. Someone at Amazon had seen her website, mistakenly assumed she was a gallery owner, and asked her to sign up. "It's such a monster company, it was disconcerting," Nielsen says. "I thought, 'How did you find me, this little person in Brooklyn?'"

To date, the company has signed up more than 180 galleries and offers more than 43,000 two-dimensional works from about 4,500 artists, ranging from Untitled (Dollar Bill), by Ryan Humphrey of Queens, selling for US$10, to Monet's 1868 portrait of his son Jean (US$1.4 million), and, at the top of this very big heap, Norman Rockwell's 1941 painting Willie Gillis: Package From Home (US$4.85 million).

Nielsen offers several of her digital prints for US$45 each.

The Monet and the Rockwell proved to be catnip for the news media and targets for snide remarks, many of them on Amazon's website. Economist and critic Tyler Cowen, appraising Amazon's higher-priced wares on his blog, Marginal Revolution, wrote: "I've browsed the 'above 10k' category, and virtually all of it seems a) aesthetically abysmal and b) drastically overpriced. It looks like dealers trying to unload unwanted, hard-to-sell inventory at sucker prices."

The company did not create Amazon Art to sell Impressionist masterpieces. As its representatives point out, 95 per cent of the works offered cost less than US$10,000. About a third of them cost between US$200 and US$1,000.

Amazon makes no claims about the quality and imposes no taste criteria. "We are not doing any curation," Peter Faricy, Amazon's vice-president and general manager of Amazon Marketplace, says. "We look to the galleries for that."

Customers can buy art online from Etsy, eBay and Costco. Online start-ups such as Artspace, Artsy and Artsicle have made it their mission to demystify the art-buying experience and broaden the audience through hand-holding, affordable prices or both, while companies such as Artnet and Paddle8 have brought auctions to the internet.

The online activity reflects a shift in consumer behaviour. Increasingly, buyers have shown a willingness to select art online and pay for it online, too, without ever seeing the original work.

Brooklyn artist Nielsen, for example, moved quite a bit of merchandise. After the website Hyperallergic included one of her prints in an article titled Ten of the Cheapest Artworks on Amazon Art, she sold eight prints the next week.

One sale came when she was explaining Amazon Art to friends at a dinner party. A guest reached for his smartphone and immediately bought a print. "I was just going to call him and tell him I've processed his order and it's ready to ship," Nielsen says. "But I think I'll just walk it over. He lives three blocks from my studio."

The New York Times