Is The Online Art Market Really Any Different? What We’ll See In 2013

If there is one thing that characterizes 2012 in the art world – other than the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy – it seems to me to be the expression, repeated like a drumbeat over and over again, “game-changer.”  With every auction record, with every edition of an art fair, with every new branch of a mega-gallery, media, collectors, and dealers alike pronounced the arrival of a “game-changing” event, as if the “game” (is it a game?) that is the art world had grown so boring, so predictable, and above all, so stuck in the mud, that it simply had to be turned upside its head.

And nowhere, it seems, did that phrase appear more frequently than in the growing boom of the online art market.

Lord knows there are – and long have been —  more than enough portals for the buying and selling of works on the primary market – mostly those by unknown artists, Sunday painters and the sort who make pretty little landscape and portrait paintings, and dozens, if not hundreds, more of those appeared this year.  For the most part, they all follow the model of your standard e-commerce deal: browse, click, buy, and a package arrives in the mail.

These are not the kinds of things I’m talking about.

The ones I mean are those sites that claim (and most do claim) to offer “a new alternative for collectors,” to be “the new option beyond auctions houses and galleries,” to offer a new model for a new age.

Most of them, unsurprisingly, did no such thing.  They burst forth with a clang and a bang, like the heavily-backed, which emerged this year after long speculation and rumor, only to bellyflop on the seas of the art collecting universe.   As my colleague at Artinfo, Julia Halperin, noted in the latest Art & Auction, no less a figure than Robert Storr – former curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA — observed in the New York Times shortly after’s much anticipated launch, “This place is littered with really terrible art that nobody should be directed to.”

So much for that.

Other loud voices have included the even-more-questionable VIP Art, the latest incarnation of the VIP Art Fair, which, having twice failed, was reinvented as a kind of hybrid of  1st Dibs (which laudably not only really did birth a unique, new model of e-commerce, but actually is navigable, comprehensive,  generous with truly interesting and important offerings, and – consequently – successful) and the very first of the online art marketing sites (and still, hands down, the best),

Initially created as a forum for an online art fair, VIP Art now provides what it calls “events,” an idea previously initiated by the now-defunct Art Collectors Club.  “Events” are, essentially, online exhibitions of works that follow a given theme – portraits, say, or – as is currently on view – art from the Middle East. Visitors can shop the events, which offer a way to search by theme,  or randomly shop the site.   Selections can be filtered by artist, by gallery, or by medium.

But a careful look through the offerings gives me, at least, a sense of perusing a storeroom of all the works that failed sell at recent exhibitions or art fairs.  Any number of them are works I recognize as having sat for years on the home pages of various galleries, or in their online inventory listings.  More, their very presence there raises the problem faced by all such online ventures (including Artnet, even): anything that’s posted for more than a month or so becomes, by default, a reject: who wants to buy something thousands of others have seen and obviously didn’t want?

But there are a few sites which, just maybe, actually do fit the role of “game-changer”  – though chances are, you haven’t heard of them just yet.

The Spotlist, for instance, offers a unique market proposition as a “collector-to-collector marketplace,” according to U.S. Partner Clayton Press.  The portal generally focuses on secondary market sales of works valued at under $100,000. (A separate section of the site is reserved for “private offers” of more costly items, including a Richter currently listed at over $3.25 million).

Originally established by Florian Baron, a German dealer and curator, The Spotlist initially served as a retailer of primary market works from gallery inventories largely featuring German artists.  In February 2012, Press and his partner Gregory Linn joined forces with Baron to develop the current portal, gradually dropping the primary market sales altogether in June.

“I think there’s a real thirst to participate in the market beyond auction houses and after the gallery resale channels have been exhausted,” Press says, explaining the site’s success in an increasingly crowded market.  “We encourage people to follow traditional protocol before coming to us, but it’s up to them.”

Essentially, Press explains, the site operates “as a private dealer venue with a public inventory,” in which Baron, Press and Linn will assist in any negotiations.  “We make every effort to sort out at the front end any disconnect between a collector’s expectation and the actual market value” of a work, says Press.  “We are diligent about establishing price, negotiating prices, and managing buyer and seller percentages, which are non-negotiable.” (The Spotlist takes a 7.5 percent commission from each side, giving it a significant advantage over auction houses in terms of consigning works.) In addition, Linn and Press (who also operate Linn Press LLC art advisory services, based in New Jersey) create extensive written statements about each work, providing considered background on the piece and its importance.

What’s particularly intriguing about The Spotlist is the fact that, if it is a game changer at all – and it very well may be – it is not challenging the status quo of auction houses and galleries, as other such sites do.  Rather, the company is re-formatting the role of the private dealer, who ordinarily stays much more low-profile and who keeps the works he represents carefully under wraps.  The Spotlist model offers another way to handle such things without risking over-exposure of the works on sale: of the 300 items currently available through The Spotlist, says Press, only 30 or so works are ever visible on the site at a given time. If something doesn’t sell over the course of six weeks, The Spotlist team takes it offline and renegotiates with the seller, deciding whether or not to re-offer it in future or take it out of inventory altogether.

The project is clearly working: in their first month, The Spotlist made eight sales, grossing $200,000, and it’s been all uphill ever since. Currently, its newsletter, which began at a mere 4,500 subscribers, goes out to many times that number, all of them  “potential buyers and sellers,” according to Press, including collectors and galleries in North America, Europe, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – many of whom have already consummated deals on the site.

Newer to the market is the Monaco-based, which debuted in October of this year with the promise to “change the rules.”  Led by former Wildenstein Vice President Antoine Van den Beuque, an expert in 19th-century French painting, alongside Internet whiz-kid Antony Riand, ArtViatic serves an elite clientele with works valued above 150,000 euros.  Members pay 3500 euros per year for access to ArtViatic’s full catalogue, but the commission level is considerably lower than you’ll find elsewhere, at three percent each for buyer and for seller.

Claiming to “revolutionize the art market,” ArtViatic involves a complex model through which buyers and sellers negotiate directly, without the involvement of intermediaries (for better or for worse).   Sellers, who may offer art works for sale at the rate of 500 euros for a period of four months via the site’s “First Access” plan, are required to provide certificates of authenticity and/or catalogue raisonné information, condition reports, and any other associated documents before ArtViatic will accept a listing.  (First Access members do not have access to the site’s catalogues, however.)  All purchases are made securely via external escrow accounts.

Because the site is so new, it’s hard to tell how successful it might actually be: to date, only one sale has been completed, though Riand claims that the number of subscribers – and hence, potential buyers – is growing rapidly and includes not only private collectors, but also dealers and art banking consultants who may at some point choose to negotiate sales on behalf of a client. (By contrast, The Spotlist will only work collector-to-collector, and refuses any dealer participation on the buying end.)    But if offerings are any indication, ArtViatic certainly shows promise: currently, the site is hawking works by Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso, Richard Prince, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, among others, with prices ranging from 150,000 – 2 million euros.

But is this a “revolution”?  Again, the site serves more as a form of private dealership than it does an actual challenge to the auction houses – the real motivation behind its founding.   The “hands-off” approach of the owners makes it possible, says Riand, for buyers and sellers to “have fun” with the negotiating process – but deprives them of the kind of expert market guidance a professional art dealer can provide.  (“They like it,” he told me as the aforementioned deal was being played out. “I get calls from both sides saying ‘it works!’” )

But buying art is not a game.  And while the owners of ArtViatic demand extensive paperwork for each item before it can be listed, they are ultimately not responsible for any issues that may arise in the future, leaving buyers at a significant risk.  Unlike auction houses, ArtViatic does not have a staff of experts vetting every work; and unlike The Spotlist (or and Artspace, for that matter), most of ArtViatic’s listings are by artists long since deceased. It is somewhat worrisome that the User Agreement, therefore, includes the following statements:

+ The fact that a seller places an advertisement on the ArtViatic website cannot be interpreted as a warranty on the part of ArtViatic as to the authenticity or provenance of the work of art.

+ ArtViatic does not provide any warranty as to the absolute accuracy of information displayed. It merely has a best efforts obligation as regards the reproduction of the information it receives.

+ As an intermediary between the buyer and the seller, ArtViatic does not provide any warranty whatsoever concerning the advertisements displayed on the website author works of art sold.

(It is also, perhaps, notable that ArtViatic, which denounces “intermediaries” on its home page, refers to itself as an “intermediary” in its legal statements. But I digress.)

Still, Clayton Press feels that ArtViatic “offers a nice complement to what we do.”  And certainly the two venues  represent creative, innovative additions to the current ho-hum art e-commerce landscape.  Are they “game-changers”? That’s a pretty big role to fill, and it’s way too early to tell for certain.  But either – or both – of them might well signify new directions, new options, new possibilities ahead.  And that’s a heck of a good way to start a new year.

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