For a long time, the art market was “a secret world of whispers” according to art advisor Kim Heirston, who started her career working in New York’s downtown galleries three decades ago. Then, as an archivist for the late gallerist Robert Miller, she safeguarded and only shared materials that were critical to gallery sales, on request.
But today, starting a fine art collection is easier than ever, thanks to the internet, where many players in the art market now operate. Purchasing artworks isn’t just for art experts or the wealthy collectors who can afford to hire them. Now, “you’re able to get every bit of information,” Heirston said in a phone interview.
Many artworks can be purchased or bid for online, bypassing older models, such as directly negotiating with galleries or attending auctions.
In 2019, Hiscox’s annual art trade report captured the trend, estimating that online art sales had reached $4.8 billion that year — up from $1.5 billion in 2013. The figure is expected to climb to $9.32 billion by 2024.
The coronavirus pandemic has spurred on significant changes as well — from major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s experimenting with hybrid live and digital sales, and galleries and art fairs adapting to virtual showrooms. There’s also been the meteoric rise of the digital art market mostly thanks to NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
But that said, those who are able and interested in purchasing artworks for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more), hiring an art advisor to guide your collection and counsel you on the art market is probably still wise.
“I’ve been able to see the vicissitudes,” Heirston said. “I know who’s in favor and who’s not. I try to project who may be favored or coveted down the line.”
But for first-time buyers or newcomers with a more modest budget — say, in the hundreds or thousands — they’ll find there are many new ways to get started.
How to buy art online
Online art marketplaces offer a number of tools to help you get a grasp on the market, from robust search features and extensive pricing data to informative articles to help put the artists and artworks in context.
Artsy, founded in 2009, remains the largest marketplace, with an inventory of over 1 million artworks from more than 4,000 galleries, art fairs and institutions [disclaimer: this writer was a former employee at Artsy], but sites including Artsper and Saatchi Art also offer plenty of options. Users to these platforms won’t necessarily be able to click-to-buy all listed artworks — with some, you’ll have to make online offers or contact the gallery. Both Artsy and Artnet also partner with auction houses and other organizations to offer exclusive online auctions.
So, where might someone start? As a rule of thumb, prints, works on paper, photography and digital art often offer more reasonable price points than painting or sculpture. In addition, following the market of early-career artists can mean finding a great piece of art before their works become too pricey.
With seemingly endless listings, however, the question becomes how to sort through them all.
That’s where Platform has stepped up, The David Zwirner-backed marketplace curates only 100 contemporary works each month from independent galleries around the US. General manager Bettina Huang says their model is similar to Net-a-Porter, which offers edits of luxury fashion and beauty offerings, “and then makes it really, really easy for you to buy.”
After the mega gallery David Zwirner partnered with smaller galleries to launch a series of viewing rooms while the pandemic shuttered galleries and halted their sales, Zwirner’s son, Lucas, turned the project into its own art e-commerce company with Huang and a separate team. Platform offers many works under $10,000, and all can be directly purchased through the site (even in installments through Klarna). It’s first-come, first-serve — unlike many galleries, which can require intensive relationship-building — though there is a loyalty program for repeat buyers to gain 24-hour early access each month.
“By limiting it to a certain number of artworks that are really vetted by the galleries whom we’ve specifically invited on, it’s a very different approach so that as a consumer or collector, you can feel really confident that whatever you’re buying has gone through multiple layers of checking,” said Lucas Zwirner in the video call with Huang. “Our aspiration with Platform is to present a really diverse, accurate snapshot of the very best of what’s out there.”