Virtual art galleries have taken the internet by storm in recent years. While major international art fairs such as the globally renowned Art Basel and Frieze art fairs, and emerging art fairs such as the Asia Contemporary Art Show which is held twice a year, bring together artists and galleries from around the globe for easy viewing and access for interested clients looking to buy, the general consensus seems to be that it is no longer enough.

According to industry experts, online channels are offering avenues for emerging artists and new buyers to interact with established artists, sellers and buyers. As trust and technology grow, so does the level of interest in this new way of buying art.

"There is a fundamental issue with the industry we are in," says Mark Saunderson, director and co-founder of the Asia Contemporary Art Show. "There are far too many artists than galleries to represent them. Often artists just miss out on opportunities to be represented.

"In Hong Kong, as is typical of any other major art ecology, galleries will do around 10 shows a year. The show gets put on and then put off very quickly, [and then] the works end up back in storage," he adds. "Before the internet, the artworks will [spend a lot of time] in storage. The internet offers a very significant opportunity to expose the artworks to those who are interested."

John Auerbach, international managing director of digital and e-commerce initiatives for international auction house Christie's, agrees: "As the global client base for collecting art and luxury goods grows, online is the only practical way to meet the demand, given the physical capacity constraints of travelling exhibitions and salerooms."

It is undeniably a growing trend. According to The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2015, published by British art insurers Hiscox, "the evolution of online art sales means that the value of the global online art market has risen from just US$1 billion in 2013 to an estimated US$2.64 billion this year [2015]".

Online art sales can be split into two categories. The first type of online sales began as a natural development with modern consumer trends - clients would view and inquire about pieces found on a website before the artworks are taken offline and replaced by the traditional method of the seller inspecting the artwork in person. The second, more evolutionary method of online art purchase is conducted solely through virtual means.

The 2015 report focused on the latter "click-and-buy", online-only purchase of art. In the report, Robert Read, head of fine art for Hiscox, acknowledged this type of online platform faces challenges as the world continues to embrace the trend.

"With 91 per cent of online buyers surveyed having bought from a physical gallery or auction house before buying online, brick-and-mortar space remains vital in educating and driving confidence in art buying," Read wrote. "It follows that online art buying should be seen as a complement to, rather than a replacement of, physical auctions, galleries and art fairs."

Confidence is inevitably the biggest obstacle for online art sales. According to the 2015 report, 82 per cent cite the inability to inspect the physical work as the biggest setback to online sales. This should come as no surprise. Part of the charm in the traditional way people buy art is the chance to see and experience the piece up close and in person. In order for online platforms to succeed, buyers must be willing to sacrifice this notion.

"Trust is vital in earning the support of clients, and it is especially critical when it involves precious objects," Christies' Auerbach says.

The industry expert credits the auction house's well-established reputation as a leading auction house and the fact that integrity and authenticity are built into the brand as reasons for the growing number of sales, as well as growing lots for sale per year. Digital sales for Christie's began at two auctions in 2011 and have grown to more than 75 in 2015.

"Digital sales are now fully integrated into our DNA as a company," Auerbach says. "We use the same processes for our online sales that we do for our auction and private sales. For online sales, [customers] just use a mouse instead of a paddle."

Another method to give buyers confidence is through digital assimilation to provide a platform where buyers are not missing out on the traditional art buying experience. For example, on the Asia Contemporary Art Buyer website run by Saunderson and his team, high-resolution images are provided, allowing clients to zoom in and inspect the artworks in detail. A "view in room" feature is also available, where the buyer can see the image scaled in a familiar home setting against illustrated silhouettes indicating the height of people compared to the piece of art.

Technology can also provide opportunities for clients to grasp a better view of the piece. "Sometimes, if the client is using a mobile app where video chat is possible, this allows them the opportunity to see the art, [providing] almost the same experience as viewing in a gallery and examining an artwork," Saunderson says.

Christie's offers a similar experience. Clients can view lots online, and accompanying each lot will be several photographs to reveal details of the artwork, as well as a detailed description, a condition report, provenance, payment and shipping details, an estimated cost calendar which includes the buyer's premium, shipping and insurance. Other personal touches are also included to heighten client satisfaction and confidence. "Clients are also able to call upon our experience in financial and credit issues, packing and shipping [issues]," adds Auerbach, noting that the auction house's specialists can answer questions from clients to ease any uncertainties.

As the industry and online selling platform matures, industry experts are excited for the future.

According to Saunderson, works which seem to be selling best online at the moment are pieces by well-known artists or additional works. From his experience so far, once a piece of work is valued at over HK$4,000, "it quite quickly goes offline - particularly if it is an original work".

The 2015 Hiscox report reflects his observation, noting that 41 per cent of the online art buyers surveyed said the average price paid per piece through online sales channels was less than £1,000 (HK$11,000). The future is looking bright as well. "As time goes on, we find buyers are willing to spend higher amounts through digital sales," Auerbach says. At present, the price point on pieces available through the auction house's "Online Only" e-commerce platform run up to almost US$1 million. The most expensive piece, Pamuk by Richard Serra, fetched US$905,000 in the May 2014 auction.

It is anticipated that as users continue to gain confidence and comfort with the online marketplace, the price point they are willing to spend on click-and-buy art purchases will increase.

Read agrees. In the 2015 report, he wrote: "Online art spending is gathering pace … 46 per cent of the online art buyers surveyed had spent £10,000 or more on buying art online [up from 44 per cent last year]."

The report also predicted - based on present trends - that by 2019, online art sales will be worth US$6.3 billion. As the market continues to gain momentum, the options will truly be endless for buyers and sellers alike.


Fancy dipping your toes in the online art sales market? Here are some websites to consider.

• Asia Contemporary Art Buyer is an online gallery hosting comprehensive information on exhibitors, artists and artworks. Works shown on the website are available for sale. A "view-in-room" function allows clients to see the image scaled in a familiar home setting. 

• Christie's "Online Only" e-commerce channel offers a convenient way to bid in the auction house's auctions worldwide. Users can even see and hear the auctioneer in real time. Post-sale servicing includes the auction house's expertise in financial and credit issues, as well as packing and shipping management. 

• Paddle8 focuses on items in the middle market (ranging from US$1,000 to US$100,000). Like Christie's, its auctions are not limited to artworks. 

• Rise Art is an online contemporary art gallery, with a "click-to-buy" e-commerce angle. It also offers a "Rent Art" option, allowing users to collect art "without the risk" at a low monthly rate.

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