Business

08.08.13

Amazon Opens Fine Art Market

The e-commerce giant sells everything under the sun—from Danielle Steel books to toothpaste. Can it also sell expensive Dalis and Warhols?

From publishing to print news to groceries to fine wine, there are few industries Jeff Bezos and his online behemoth Amazon have left untouched in their path to world domination. Now, with Amazon Art, Bezos and Co. are making another pass at adding fine art to the list.

Back in 2000, a $45.4 million partnership between Amazon and Sotheby’s failed to get off the ground. Thirteen years later, the giant e-commerce site is back in the game with Amazon Art.

This time, it’s not simply relying on a single outside vendor. At launch, the marketplace offers access to 40,000 works from more than 150 galleries, with high-priced works from household names like Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell. There’s an interesting dissonance between the price point of the products ($1.15 million for Andy Warhol’s Flowers) and the interface, which seems designed for the everyman; on the homepage, a section labeled “Artists You Know” directs users to works by the likes of Dali, Miró, and Matisse. Based on the price of the piece sold, Amazon will charge a tiered commission rate between 5 percent and 20 percent.

Buying art remotely doesn’t seem so absurd when you consider that it happens all the time at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, two of the most prominent auction houses in the world. As CNBC reported earlier this summer, 27 percent of Christie’s $6.3 billion in sales last year came from online bidding. Similarly, Sotheby’s BidNow program allows online bidders to participate in all its auctions except wine, and the auction house has also long accepted bids by phone. But the big auction houses differ from Amazon Art markedly in that they still conduct most of their auctions in person or by phone. And both have the considerable cachet they’ve been accumulating since their founding back in the 18th century.

Of course, Amazon is not the first to try taking the art market completely online. Launched in October 2012, Artsy, sometimes compared to the Internet radio service Pandora, uses the Art Genome Project to recommend works to its 150,000 users. Artsy has partnered with heavy hitters like the Whitney and SFMoMA. While partner galleries sell work through the site, Artsy’s function is exploratory as well as commercial. And Artspace, a similar platform, announced in February 2012 that it has raised $8.5 million in funding for expansion and plans to double the size of its $100 million inventory.

Amazon lacks the specialization of an Artsy or an Artspace or the built-in auction interface of a site like eBay. But it also brings to the table a customer base numbering well above 100 million and the resources that come with a market capitalization of $135 billion.

Still, skeptics are many. The economist Tyler Cowen critiqued the high-end inventory as “aesthetically abysmal” and “drastically overpriced.” Cowen forecasts that most of the success of Amazon Art will come from selling posters and screen prints—hardly an industry game-changer. And as Cowen and others have pointed out, Amazon has yet to outline a clear strategy for guaranteeing authenticity—beyond working with reputable galleries.

Critics have noted that many of Amazon’s advantages—competitive pricing (sometimes enabled by Bezos’s willingness to sell goods at a loss), the convenience of buying from home, the cheap and fast shipping—are probably negligible in the fine art market. If anything, some of them undercut the company’s credibility in a luxury market. Will millionaire buyers really be willing to browse for Monets alongside the Average Joe sorting paintings by Price: Low to High?

In the comment section, trolls have sprung into action to make fun of some of the most expensive work now available on the site. One review of a Warhol painting priced at $1.45 million is titled “IT REALLY DOES LOOK LIKE THAT,” and warns, “Buyer beware— your monitor is not messing up, it really does look like that.” At the site’s launch, a Monet portrait priced at $1.45 million was flooded with joke reviews with titles like “USED? PAINTING HAS CRACKS!” and “THIS IS THE REAL THING, BEWARE OF ‘MANET’ RIP OFFS” but it appears the painting has since been purchased or removed.

Despite the mixed reactions and attention paid to the most expensive tier of work, most of Amazon Art’s offerings are more moderately priced—as of Thursday, less than 5 percent of the site’s inventory is in the $10,000 plus range and about 30,000 pieces, comprising more than 80 percent of the inventory, cost less than $2,500. Viewed through this lens, most of the inventory on Amazon Art is not such a huge jump from the site’s established Artwork subsection of its Home & Kitchen category, which already contains over half a million original works. Even if Amazon Art doesn’t catch on as a go-to resource for tastemakers and major collectors, it could still be successful with interior decorators and regular consumers.

All things considered, the art world has seen lots of disruptions recently—the meteoric rise of Qatar’s Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani. Jeff Bezos and Amazon are known for being serial disruptors. It remains to be seen whether they will make an, um, impression, on the fine art world.