The art industry is at a crossroads. Never before have more people been engaged with art. Yet over the past decade the market has largely stagnated and the number of artworks trading annually has decreased. Galleries and auction houses are looking for new ways to survive and thrive, with online sales receiving increased attention, given the significant opportunity to connect with and cultivate new collectors.
Who are these online art collectors and how can the industry better serve them? This report unpacks the similarities and differences between online collectors’ spending patterns, motivations, and challenges, and compares them to those of traditional art buyers. It confirms some perceptions about online buyers and shatters others. Better understanding and supporting these online art collectors at every step of their journey will benefit the online art market, improve the health of the art market overall, and provide more opportunities for artists.
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Art collectors surveyed for Artsy’s report identified five key drivers that have pushed them to buy art online.
Why collectors buy art online
Access to artworks that collectors can’t get elsewhere
Considering the supply-driven nature of the art market, it’s no surprise that access to artworks and artists was the most frequently cited reason for collectors to transact online. This exclusive access to inventory was cited by just under half of all online art collectors, a level that remained remarkably consistent across other key characteristics like budget and the length of time collecting.
More experienced collectors with higher budgets were, however, 30% more likely to say they had purchased art online because they couldn’t physically be at the art fair or gallery where it was being sold. In written responses and interviews, these collectors indicated that one of the most significant value-adds of online art platforms is being able to browse and purchase works from the hectic schedule of major fairs and international galleries they care about, but don’t live near.
“If we only were able to buy from galleries that we knew, and we visit, and we regularly have deals with, it would have been very limited,” said one collector based in Portugal. “We wouldn’t be able to see and appreciate and get to know artists from such distant geographies than the ones we are in” without the help of online platforms, they said.
The convenience of discovering and buying art online were the second and third most frequently cited reasons for collectors to purchase art online. Collectors who have been buying art for longer periods and who have higher budgets most frequently cited in their answers the speed and lowered friction of transacting online, particularly through online auctions. Buyers newer to the market tended to more frequently cite the ability to discover works more easily and on their own schedule as attractive features of online buying, as well as the ability to transact immediately.
Collectors from both cohorts indicated in interviews that when trying to buy art online, slow response times from galleries has been a limiting factor on their purchases. Because of the perceived convenience of buying art online, there is an expectation that dealers will be quick to respond to questions in the lead-up to a sale, as well as post-sale queries around payment and shipping.
Access to information
Collectors reported that the access to information about artists that online platforms provide (or that can be attained via search) creates a strong incentive to purchase through these channels. They also mentioned that compared to art fairs—where a collector might be given information about a work, but be expected to make a decision on the spot—online platforms allow collectors to feel like they have the time to do research at their own pace without the pressure of a salesperson.
More competitive pricing
A quarter of online art collectors cited the ability to comparison-shop and find the best price as a key driver of their online transactions. More experienced collectors with higher budgets were 43% more likely than other online buyers to select this option in the survey, ranking it third among their motivations for purchasing art online. These experienced collectors are more savvy overall about pricing and more likely to be concerned about a work’s potential to hold or increase in value.
Avoiding the “intimidating” art world
A third of online buyers with smaller collecting budgets and who are newer to the market said that buying art online is less intimidating than buying from a gallery, fair, or auction house directly. These new buyers were 49% more likely than other online art collectors to identify this as a driver of their purchases. They also tended to be younger than the sample as a whole, and have likely come of age making many of their non-art purchases online—a generational trend suggesting that more art sales will move online over time. It also offers an opportunity for art-world entities hoping to secure new buyers to find ways to engage them that may counter the art world’s “intimidating” reputation.