The Rise of the Online Art Market

September 22, 2017

Unlike music records or books, items bought and sold routinely online by millions of people, fine art has proved to be stubbornly resistant to the seemingly overwhelming influence of e-commerce. As a result, the online art market has been underdeveloped for years. If we were to pull an average rate from the last decade or so, online transactions contributed only a small percentage of the art sold by auction houses and dealers. However, these numbers are a bit misleading as they do no justice to the online art market world - the interest in purchasing artwork online has been on the rise in recent years and, although the information of the last decade tells us otherwise, the average percentage of the last couple of years is actually a much bigger digit[1].

At the moment, it is still widely assumed that e-commerce will not be able to transform the art market in the way it has changed the recorded music and book retailing. Unique paintings and sculptures, unlike multiple prints and photographs, are simply too expensive to sell effectively on the Internet. But, make no mistake, the online art market is definitely changing the rules of the fine art game[2], so it would be highly advisable to make yourself familiar with all of its aspects and characteristics.

In the year of 2016, the online global sales report showed that buyers who work with artists directly tend to buy more works from them
Buying Artwork via Laptop, image via

Art on Demand - Why is the Online Art Market on the Rise?

The main reason why we've been witnessing a rise of the online art marketplace can be attributed to a very simple fact. The Internet and the World Wide Web are nothing new anymore, they became a standardized part of our world and they are no longer observed as a novelty. It took some time, but we've reached a point where people are completely comfortable with the online world, are a lot less wary of it and nearly everyone is capable of being a part of it. As a result, fine art shops are enjoying a boom as less and less people are intimidated by the idea of shopping online.

Another reason why the online art market is on a rising trajectory is that investors are pouring a lot of money into online art auction houses, such as Paddle8, Artspace, Lofty, Saatchi art, Artbinder and Auctionata, while the industry's giants like Christie’s, Amazon, Sotheby’s and eBay also turned their attention (as well as their money) to online art auctions. Studies performed by the aforementioned institutions show that one of the main reasons customers are interested in online marketplaces is because most buyers are increasingly interested in fixed-price options that allow them to avoid the pressures and pit falls of auctions.

Image of a customer at art sales who photographs the piece, as buyers often do this to set the price later
Taking a Photo of an Artwork, image via

How Natural Are Most Online Sales of Art?

Historically speaking, a change in how art is sold has always played an important role in the expansion of the art market. The salons helped expand the art market in the 19th century, the commercial galleries in the 20th century changed the selling principle completely and now the Internet has the potential to expand the art market in the new millennium. So, at least conceptually, the online expansion we've been witnessing is actually nothing new - art will always find a way to keep up with the times and there is no reason to be afraid it may damage the market or somehow put its customers at an disadvantage.

A crucial tool of the online works sales trade, old fashioned bidding equipment is becoming obsolete on a global level in the year of 2016
Bidding Equipment, image via

Advantages of the Online Art Sales

The main advantage people buying art online state as the chief reason why they purchase artwork this way is that, by doing so, they get to avoid the often pompous world of art. Galleries and auction houses can be intimidating places for some people and shopping online is their way to bypass the middleman and enjoy the exchange that much more. A customer of the online art market can order his or her piece much more comfortably, with the option of browsing for more information and without the pressure of a curator convincing them to buy an artwork. It allows them to make a calm and sensible decision that usually proves to be a correct one in the long run.

Online art markets allow buyers to view sales, price ranges and trade report facts of the year from the comfort of their home
Browsing Through an Online Gallery, image via

The Kind of Artwork Found in Online Markets

The standard art market is dominated by the ever-higher prices paid at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, organizations mainly concentrated on status-enhancing paintings by trophy names such as Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Christopher Wool. In fact, works priced at more than €1 million seem to account for nearly 50 percent of the overall value of the standard auction market, yet they represent less than 0.5 percent of the actual transactions! Online art markets allow you to emancipate yourself from such other-worldly standards and start evaluating artwork on something more than its price tag. Online art market traditionally focuses on the lower-value art sales, primarily those found in the $1,000 to $50,000 range. And not surprisingly, most of these are limited editions of print pieces.

Since the year of 2016, artists started to make global sales of their work view online in a fashion buyers could leave a report after purchasing works
Auction Equipment Placed on a Keyboard, image via

What's the Future of the Online Art Market?

One of the most popular topics often discussed in the contemporary art scene is predicting the future of the online art market. Some claim that it will never reach the level of traditional auctions while others say that it represents the future of the fine art world. And, frankly, there are facts backing both opinions. The main obstacle for online art auctions to become more popular is embedded into the nature of sales - the buyers are unable to physically inspect the work they are buying. This is also the main reason why some believe online art auctions will never be able to replace the old-fashioned offline purchasing methods and will always remain just an additional way of selling artworks.

However, despite the popular opinion that online markets will forever be under the shadow of its more traditional counterpart, the numbers seem to suggest otherwise. Make no mistake, this form of purchasing art is on a rise and statistics show that more and more people are quite satisfied with simply ordering a piece via computer or a tablet. And, if the online art market continues to develop and expand so rapidly, who knows what the future may hold for it. Whatever the fate of the online art market turns out to be eventually, we are all living in the moment and, as of now, buying artwork via the Internet is a popular option[3] and any upcoming collector or curator should be aware of this unique market's characteristics[4]. It opens some interesting doors and opportunities, so approach it without prejudices and give it a chance.


  1. Read, R., 2017, Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2017, Hiscox [Sep 12, 2017]
  2. Reyburn, S., 2015, When the Fine Art Market Goes Online, The New York Times [Sep 12, 2017]
  3. Jamieson, A., 2017, Taking the plunge into the online art market, Affordable Art Fair [Sep 12, 2017]
  4. Anonymous, 2017, How to Research Your Online Art Market, The Abundant Artist [Sep 12, 2017]

Featured images: Auction Hammer on a Laptop Keyboard, via; An Online Bid Metaphor, via; An Auction Enter Button, via All images used for illustrative purposes only.