Curated Consignments, Bespoke Services and More: E-Commerce Platforms Demystified

Nov 14, 2017

Slowly, the online art market is expanding and converting naysayers who formerly refused to make digital purchases. Back in May, The New York Times reported that online art sales still account for less than 10% of the total market, though they’ve increased 15% since 2015. If the numbers are clear, the underlying processes are more nebulous. Though it’s easy to type in a web address and see an image of an artwork, it’s more difficult to see the history attached to the piece and how that consignment came about. Online transactions can feel impersonal, particularly compared to the intimate interactions that gallerists and collectors typically enjoy: there’s no back viewing room, no sitting down and having a coffee with the seller. To demystify the online art buying experience, we spoke with a few representatives from online auction sites and online galleries to get more details.

Where Do Consignments Come From?

artnet Auctions, one of the top five online auction platforms, receives its stock from private individuals, trade clients such as gallery owners, private dealers and advisors, and online submissions. The site will not, however, disclose the breakdown among these categories. artnet Auctions and other major platforms often court potential suppliers--they’re making a push, right now, to acquire art that’s more highly valued. Thinking about listing your own work? Alicia Carbone, the company’s Vice President Auctions & Private Sales, describes the personalized process: “Our in-house specialists are directly in touch to guide each seller through the process, from valuation to promotion we customize a strategy to most effectively position and market each sale,” she says. “Whether a single work or an entire collection, we work with every client on an individual basis.”

On a smaller scale, gallerist Stephen Bulger, who also owns Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery, started the platform FFOTOIMAGE to make online sales exclusively for photographs, sourcing art only from colleagues and collectors he knows and trusts. “We want to make sure we’ve got firm control over the quality of what goes on the site and the accuracy of what we’re offering,” he says. Consignments stay with the owner until a sale is made.

At London’s Subject Matter Art Ltd., the number of sources for consigned works is even smaller and more tightly controlled. The art gallery works with a select number of photographers, and the works don’t even really exist until a sale is made: they remain digital files until an interested party requests a photograph through the site. Then, the gallery sends the file to the printer and coordinates shipping. To ensure very limited editions (between five and twenty-five, usually), the gallery has the file destroyed after the print is made. As for their artist roster, Kitty Dinshaw describes how they attract and retain talented photographers in a number of ways. “I’d say we keep our ear to the ground,” she says. Interested photographers can also contact the gallery, and the staff will always respond to say whether or not they’re interested.

Finally, one of the largest and most inclusive platforms, Barnebys, doesn’t make consignments at all: they simply act as an auction aggregator, a kind of Google search for auction items. On their site, you can search for anything from a Rolex watch to a Warhol silkscreen, and a list of related items that are available via auction will pop up, along with their prices and other details. Participating auction platforms (which either reach out to Barnebys, or connect with the company via the sales team) hail from around the world, and Barnebys makes them all accessible with a search and a click, which will take you to the auction’s website. Every day, the site offers a catalogue of more than 700,000 lots. Notably, Barnebys doesn’t take commissions for their listings: their clients pay them for each click their merchandise receives (a pay-per-click model, as opposed to the click-and-buy system that other similar aggregators offer). This keeps Barnebys more democratic in their offerings and encourages sellers to list works of many different price points.

After the Click: Bespoke Services

After there’s a sale on FFOTOIMAGE, the consigner receives an email alerting him or her about the interest. Bulger and his team can coordinate any framing that the buyer wants as well as special shipping instructions. FFOTOIMAGE invoices the buyer for the artwork and any additional expenses, then distributes the appropriate amount to the consigner (the site keeps a percentage of the sales, though they don’t charge any fees for the listing). Buyers have a five business day grace period during which they can return the work.

Carbone notes that not all artnet sales are made online; some are handled as private sales. If you’re a client, you can let one of the site’s specialists know what you’re interested in, and they’ll source works. “We really enjoy it when we can work one-on-one with clients to help build out their collection over time whether it’s via auction or private sale,” she says. Same goes for sellers, who can work with the site one-one-one to find the right buyer for a particular piece.

How Will Online Consignments Change Over the Next Few Years?

“I think supplies will continue to democratize,” says Carbone. Currently, Christies and Sotheby’s dominate the secondary market, and a handful of global galleries exhibit the highest-grossing artists. “Yet now some top artists go outside their galleries with direct to market sales, or different gallery partnerships across different geographical regions and young artists have options to sell in a variety of ways with platforms such as Saatchi art,” she reveals. The shift is a boon for artists who have long been locked into limited gallery models. It’s also great for collectors, who will enjoy new and more transparent opportunities for purchasing a broader range of art.

Barnebys’ head of content, Pontus Silfverstolpe, believes that we’ll see shifts toward greater accessibility. “If we can lower the entry barrier for users accustomed to e-commerce to this fantastic industry,” he says, “we could potentially change the way people buy things—from new off-the-shelf items to re-used design classics and antiques sold by 300-year old companies.”

Bulger, for his part, hopes to increase his inventory. He monitors interest on the site to better understand what people are looking for. After assuming that a young demographic would form a majority of his audience, he was surprised to see that older photographs actually gained more traction and led to more sales. He wants to respond accordingly. “We can start putting more work out that closely emulates what people seem to be clicking on,” he says.

Dinshaw is hopeful that younger generations of buyers will embrace online art platforms in a way that current purchasers haven’t yet. “Just as they feel comfortable buying clothing online, that has extended to art,” she says. The market will accordingly grow.

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