Key Takeaway: The Internet has created new ways of buying and selling everything, and now that includes original art. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but here’s what you need to know before you buy art online.
Please note: If you purchase art after clicking links in this article, I may receive a commission.
Benefits of Buying Art Online
In the era of ecommerce, it’s become easier to buy almost anything you want than at any point in history. An ever-expanding cadre of websites is changing the way we buy art by moving the process online. Brick-and-mortar galleries are no longer the only place to buy original art and limited editions on the primary market. Likewise, auction houses like Sotheby’s aren’t the only places to buy premium on the secondary market. As with all online shopping, consumers reap the rewards of convenience, comparison, and a low-touch sales process which leaves ample time for researching major purchases.
With hundreds of thousands of artists and tens of thousands of galleries scattered around the globe, it can be daunting to find the artist and their work most suited to your personal preferences and your home or office. By shopping for original art online, you can access the work of any artist who has a website or an online profile.
One website alone, SaatchiArt.com, offers more than 1,535,444 paintings, 448,787 limited and open edition photographs, 228,266 original drawings, and 88,719 original sculptures for sale (as of June 7, 2019). Don’t worry, they give you a bevy of tools to narrow that down: Style, Subject, Medium, Price, Size, Color, and more.
Research & Compare Before You Buy
The gallery experience can be overwhelming for first-time art buyers. It’s hard to make heads or tails of pricing, you may never have heard of many or any of the artists whose work is on exhibit, and you possibly don’t know enough about art to feel comfortable making a decision.
Gallerists expect this and they’re ready to tell you anything you need to hear to sell you a piece of art they’re representing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but before you offer up your hard-earned dough, you probably want to know exactly what you’re buying.
When shopping online, you can check for other artists with similar styles or subject matter, you can find other artworks in the colors and size you’re looking for, you can validate if the price asked is reasonable, and you can do all of this more easily online.
Get to Know the Artist
Sometimes when we buy art what we really are seeking is a connection to something deeper, especially a connection to the person who created the art. If an artist’s work speaks to you, it’s natural that you’d want to learn more about the artist’s state of mind when she created it, what his influences were, and why this representation came to be. The best way to learn this information is to build a relationship with the artist, but that can be challenging because…
When artists work with real world galleries, you typically only get a chance to meet them at show opening parties. Except you’re in the company of 60-100 other people who also want to meet the artist, so they’re often overwhelmed and uncomfortable.
By finding an artist’s online portfolio and browsing it, you are opening the door to a relationship. You can contact them via email or social media and ask them questions about their work. Bonus: by buying directly from the artist, you’re putting more of the profit for the work in his or her pocket and not a gallerist’s bank account.
A note: some artists prefer not to interact with their patrons and rely on galleries to maintain their professional relationships entirely. You should respect those artists’ wishes and work with their designated gallery in those instances.
Free Art Consultations
Many of the online galleries — ecommerce stores selling art — offer free art consultations. They’ll get to know you and what you’re looking for, what you want to pay and where you want to put the piece, and then they’ll recommend art they think is a great fit for you. This free service is like having your own art whisperer and should be utilized if you’re new to buying art. Sites like SaatchiArt.com and Uprise Art offer these free art advisory services.
Drawbacks of Buying Art Online
As with all alternatives to well-established procedures, there are pros and cons. The negative aspects of buying original art online all relate to misrepresentation. Whether intentional or otherwise, there is a very real possibility that a work of art you purchase may arrive and not be what you were expecting.
To reduce the likelihood of buyer’s remorse I recommend familiarizing yourself with the ways you can be mislead. I also strongly recommend buying from a reputable online dealer which guarantees their purchases (like SaatchiArt.com which offers a 7-day money-back guarantee). If you are bidding at an auction site, choose one which authenticates the art they’re selling OR contact the seller directly for authentication.
Photographs of Art May Be Misleading
The most likely culprit for buyer’s remorse when buying art online is the same as all online purchases where you’ve never seen the item and it’s not a commodity (like an iPhone) — the pics aren’t an accurate representation of the item.
Size Isn’t Portrayed Correctly
We’ve seen a fair number of “painting in room” photos where the dimensions of the artwork on the wall aren’t correct relative to the furniture they’re being shown with. These photos are amazingly helpful when they’re done correctly, but between carelessness and poor utility, they’re simply not always accurate. If you’re relying on these types of photos do the following:
- Verify the actual dimensions of the piece.
- Identify the location you want to put the piece.
- Put up tape on your wall in that location matching the dimensions specified.
Color Isn’t Portrayed Correctly
This is the bane of all computer-based technology — there are no consistent colors in digital technology, especially when representing the physical world in digital images. In addition to the different color profiles available on an artist’s camera (DSLR or phone), your phone and computer and browser all have different color profiles, too. All of this adds up to one simple note: you cannot rely on the color being 100% accurate — even when the artist hires a professional firm to scan the art and produce images using highly-calibrated professional colorimetric equipment.
Limited Third-Party Validation of Quality, Value, and Authenticity
Quality. When buying a piece of art, quality is a major driver of price, particularly when buying on the primary market from relatively unknown artists. Quality can mean use of archival media (meaning the materials a piece is made of should remain as they were when the piece was created for a hundred years or more).
Quality can also refer to care taken while crafting the piece. Is the canvas actually a perfect rectangle (if intended to be)? Is the canvas properly supported and fit for hanging? Are the sides of the painting treated consistently? (Some artists paint them to match the painting, others prefer them to be a solid color. This is a matter of artistic preference, but it should be handled neatly either way.)
Authenticity. If you are buying an original piece of art on the primary market, authenticity means the artist who is said to have created the piece is indeed the artist who did. I encountered on one online platform a company who offers on-demand hand-painted works. This is neither a good thing or a bad thing, but the company represented itself as an artist (who happens to be the company’s founder), not as a company who employs a stable of artists who “manufacture” the work. While this type of issue might not matter to you, it’s not a bad idea to try to verify who the artist is and who created the work before you purchase it. This might not be easy, but it would be time well spent.
On the other hand, if you are buying a piece of art on the secondary market, authenticity becomes a significant matter. The provenance of a piece (the legitimate chain of ownership) is a huge factor in determining its value. The big auction houses have built their reputations on their own authentication services. Before you buy a piece at an online auction, you should do as much homework as possible to verify the piece is as advertised… unless you don’t care if you end up buying something you love that turns out to be worth less than what you paid for it.
Value. Value of art, as in all things, is mostly subjective. That said, Art is a major industry and there are some sources of mutually agreed-upon value. They include the artist’s history of showings and galleries who they work with, auction history for the artist’s works, museum purchase history for the artist, and more. For a deep dive on this subject, I suggest reading ArtBusiness.com‘s article “Why Having Your Art Appraised is a Good Idea” and the myriad other awesome articles about buying art.
Possible Copyright Infringement Issues
Lastly, and this is really something that you as the collector can’t do too much to prevent, but you should be aware that there are many copyright issues artists deal with everyday, some of which can affect the value of the art you buy. Other issues really just affect the artist and can happen in real world galleries, too.
Here’s one story I heard… an artist hunted around for a great photograph of Freddie Mercury to celebrate the musician’s incredible talent and unique personality. He lovingly created a painting based on a still frame from a video and happily sold the painting at an online gallery. Another artist saw the success of the piece, recreated it with MINOR tweaks, and listed it for sale for twice as much.
This is an ethical issue on the part of the second artist, but it highlights one of the drawbacks of selling art online in an unscrupulous world.