Is Amazon Art a doomed venture? Let’s hope so

by on August 7, 2013 at 6:50 am in The Arts, Web/Tech | Permalink

I do not think it will revolutionize the art world:

Amazon has just announced that it’s partnered up with over 150 galleries and art dealers across the US to sell you fine art through its new initiative Amazon Art.

The site offers over 40,000 original works of fine art, showcasing 4,500 artists. That, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes it the largest online collection of art directly available from galleries and dealers. Partners in the project include Paddle8 in New York, the McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco, and the Catherine Person Gallery in Seattle.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon—which will reportedly take a 5 to 20 percent cut on all sales—was planning to launch the new service. At the time, it seemed that plenty of galleries thought that selling art online via Amazon may be distasteful. Clearly, that negative feeling hasn’t stopped Bezos & Co..

Given Amazon’s last attempt at selling art—a project with Sotheby’s back in 2000 — only lasted 16 months, it’ll be interesting to see how the initiative works out.

I expect the real business here to come in posters, lower quality lithographs, and screen prints, not fine art per se.  And sold on a commodity basis.  There is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think it will amount to much more aesthetic importance than say Amazon selling tennis balls or lawnmowers.

Should you buy this mediocre Mary Cassatt lithograph for “Price: $185,000.00 + $4.49 shipping”?  (Jeff, is WaPo charging you $250 million plus $4.49 shipping?  I don’t think so. )

One enduring feature of the art world is that a given piece will sell for much more in one context rather than another.  The same painting that might sell for 5k from a lower tier dealer won’t command more than 2k on eBay, if that.  Yet it could sell for 10k, as a bargain item, relatively speaking, if it ended up in the right NYC gallery (which it probably wouldn’t).  Where does Amazon stand in this hierarchy?  It doesn’t look promising.

Their Warhols are weak and overpriced, even if you like Warhol.  Are they so sure that this rather grisly Monet is actually the real thing?  I say the reviews of that item get it right.  At least the shipping is free and you can leave feedback.

I’ve browsed the “above 10k” category and virtually all of it seems a) aesthetically absymal and b) drastically overpriced.  It looks like dealers trying to unload unwanted, hard to sell inventory at sucker prices.  I’m guessing that many of these are being sold at multiples of three or four over auction price histories.  Is this unexceptional John Frost worth even a third of the 150k asking price?  Maybe not.

Amazon wouldn’t sell you a kitchen blender that doesn’t work, or that was triple the appropriate cost, so why should they sully their good name by hawking art purchase mistakes?  If you’ve built the best web site in the history of the world, which they have, you may decide that quality control should not be tossed out the window.  Much as I admire their shipping practices, what makes Amazon work for me is simply that they sell better stuff and a wider variety at cheaper prices.  Why give that formula up by treading into a market where such an approach won’t make any money?  Why compete in a market where an awesomely speedy physical delivery network means next to nothing?

Overall, I don’t see the advantage of Amazon over eBay in this market segment.  One nice thing about eBay is that you can see if anyone else is bidding and also that surprise quality items pop up on a relatively frequent basis, due to a fully decentralized supply network.  You also can hope for extreme bargains and indeed I have snagged a few in my time.  On the new Amazon project, supply is restricted to a relatively small number of bogus, mainstream galleries, about 150 of them according to the publicity.

eBay has the advantage with “free for all,” and good galleries and auction houses have the advantage when it comes to certification and pricing reliability.  I don’t see the intermediate niche that Amazon is supposed to be trying to fill.

I’m a big fan of Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post, but if you’re looking for the case against that move, just click on that Monet purchase and see what happens.

P. Jones August 7, 2013 at 7:33 am

This site is perfect for commercial interior designers. Businesses love decorating their halls with terrible, overpriced art.

Ed August 7, 2013 at 8:01 am

It just occurred to me that if several trends continue as they have been, in a few years people will be able to buy newspapers via online retailers. I don’t mean copies of daily newspapers, I mean the newspaper publishing companies.

I agreet that there will be a backlog against this sort of thing, as people realized that for certain items there is value in going to a physical location, assessing the quality of what you are buying at that location, having an excuse to be outside the house, and walking away with the item. Eventually there will be an equilibrium where some things are always bought online, others in stores, with fine distinctions as to what is bought there. But it increasingly looks that some people will have to drag everyone to one of the extremes before hitting the equliibrium.

RPLong August 7, 2013 at 8:25 am

In the art world, image in everything. It doesn’t matter what’s good, in only matters what’s cool, according to insiders. There may be a way to make this work, but not yet. I don’t think the gallery owners and “key opinion leaders” are willing to give up their influence to something as uncool as an online retailer.

Millian August 7, 2013 at 11:27 am

Nope, there is strong consensus on good and bad artists, though that changes slowly over time, and obviously assessments of more recent artists are more volatile.

Frederic Mari August 8, 2013 at 4:26 am

I have to agree with RPLong.

There might be method to the madness but I’ve never seen anyone being able to decisively explain to me the difference between some of the paintings I see sold on the streets for $1-2k, some by minor artists selling for $50-150K and non-museum pieces of great artists selling for a couple of mils.

You could reply that I am lucky and can fill my home and be happy with $1-2k paintings but I would say ‘what’s the point’? It still is real money to me and it wouldn’t impress anyone (and I am not a huge lover of painting anyhow, I’d prefer historical items such as bits of Roman statues or Antiquity vases, medieval or exotic everyday lifes-items and the like)

Marie August 7, 2013 at 8:44 am

Yeah, but Ebay is going out, so if you want to capture Ebay’s market and clients you have to act sooner, before someone else succeeds in stepping up.

What they’ll need also, whoever steps in, is something like Amazon’s “look inside” feature. One big down side of Amazon vs. a brick and mortar seller was that you couldn’t browse. Browsing was, I’m sure, problem for book stores as people browsed rather than buying. But pre-Amazon, I don’t think many people bought a book without opening the cover and looking inside first. There are similar “procedures” many people use when buying art, a lot of it has to do with the setting, going in and staring for a bit, getting closer and farther. I don’t think a thumbnail gallery is going to do it. LIke buying real estate, few will do it *only* after seeing the product online. But I don’t doubt someone will come up with something.

What might be interesting is if Amazon or another site can do for art what Kindle, Lulu, etc. have done for publishing — lots of little, instead of big, poor Monet’s.

Marie August 7, 2013 at 8:54 am

I see they have an “in room” feature that has a picture of the same chair and table and wall with the art hung above the table. Interesting, and I’d sure buy a $15.00 poster using it, but beyond that. . . .

Rahul August 7, 2013 at 9:01 am

Amazon may have a buggy implementation of this concept, but in general, why is selling art across the web such a bad idea? Galleries and art dealers may add value but I think their utility is oversold. Ebay provides a similar medium, yes, but a art-specific website could have its niche.

Eliminate the middleman seems to work for a lot of sectors and a large web intermediary could easily have overheads, commissions and audience-reach more competitive than a local art gallery plonked on expensive downtown real estate.

RPLong August 7, 2013 at 9:12 am

The art world doesn’t want to capture efficiencies. The actual value of art is incredibly low. Its supply is near-infinite (everyone is an artist of some kind), while demand is mostly about status signalling. The “market” for art is a totally artificial one.

erik August 7, 2013 at 10:22 am

The supply of art is infinite; the supply of good art is not. The amount of work done by dead artists is most assuredly not infinite as they won’t be producing anymore. There will be no more intricate, stunning works by Albrect Durer or Rembrandt.

However, I can’t see buying great works on paper (original prints) by anyone other then contemporaries. When you’re acquiring works done hundreds of years ago the quality of the impression and the condition of the item overall are key parts of the value.

The prices are also on the high side; while the post author states they are multiples of auction prices – and he’s right – this is nothing new in the art world. But you’re generally not talking about a commodity where you can just decide “Oh, I’m going to go pick up an impression of Renoir’s Child with a Biscuit” – there’s a limited amount of them in the world. Dealer prices reflect this truth. But even taking this into account the prices are high even for retail prices — I saw a Jim Dine on the site for $10,000 that I had the opportunity to buy in a gallery less then 6 months ago for $7500.

Rahul August 7, 2013 at 10:32 am

If good art is purchased for its goodness why should context determined price be such an enduring (and endearing?) feature?

Frederic Mari August 8, 2013 at 4:29 am

Bingo. Rahul nailed it in one.

TallDave August 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm

OTOH, the web tends to be hard on illusory pricing. Remember what it did to term life insurance pricing?

Maybe positional goods are different, though.

yoyo August 7, 2013 at 9:09 am

This will be great for price insensitive people who want to quickly browse a lot of works, and who dislike the art insider scene.

zbicyclist August 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

Why price insensitive people? Prices at the start of a service are often higher or lower than where the pricing settles. Amazon has clearly shown they will adjust prices to where they think the market is.

Andrew' August 7, 2013 at 9:42 am

When did we come up with this asinine concept that access makes art bad?

Frederic Mari August 8, 2013 at 4:36 am

When art sellers noted that art buyers pay different prices according to mysterious signalling and setting factors?

Another interesting question: Assuming it takes about the same amount of metal, plastics and engineering to produce a Porsche 911 and a Renault Sedan, say the Safrane, why is the price point so different? Volumes? Sure. But volumes are a consequence of price here.

They simply target different market segments. Ditto art. If you remove the ability of the buyer to signal his sophistication and superiority over the rest of mankind and even his peers, you’re killing the business model.

Franklin August 7, 2013 at 9:49 am

As an artist with some programming chops, it’s in my interest to see online sales of fine art made culturally more acceptable because I could sell my own work with greater ease, and Amazon is in a better position to bring about that acceptance than I am. But they’re going to have to do a much better job of it. For one, that “mediocre Mary Cassatt lithograph” is in fact a color aquatint, specifically, a pull from this edition: http://www.garveysimonartaccess.com/artists/mary-cassatt/

Also, the dependably hilarious Amazon review trolls have showed up. Under that “Monet”: “I ordered this product back in June for $1.4 million, but in July I found a similar painting by Van Gogh on sale at Target for only $800k, so I returned this one and had to pay a $14.99 restocking fee, ridiculous!!!”

Andy August 23, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I admit that what I really wanted to see was a marketplace direct from artist to consumer, rather than from gallery to consumer. I can only hope amazon has plans for that (disclosure: I work at Amazon. But I have absolutely no connection to this team or project and have no idea what’s on top for them in the future).

Personally, I’m at the point where I’m interested in buying original works rather than prints, but I can’t really justify something that costs more than several hundred bucks, maybe a grand at the tops. I sometimes find art that I like in that price range on the internet, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. If Amazon could run the equivalent of Kindle Direct Publishing for artists (though physical copies), I’d be all over that.

anon August 7, 2013 at 9:54 am

The Monet painting is not available, but you can still get a Monet baseball card ($2.74 + $3.99 shipping):

http://www.amazon.com/Baseball-Upper-Deck-Goodwin-Champions/dp/B006BXE042/

prior_approval August 7, 2013 at 10:09 am

‘Jeff, is WaPo charging you $250 million plus $4.49 shipping?’

Nope – he gets all the wonderful depreciation associated with the Post’s physical plant.

Not that I personally believe that the GMU Econ dept. actually knows much about how such things work, being that accounting is part of the School Of Management.

And that is also an obvious joke at one level – the insurance on such a shipment (and the fact that essentially no normal shipper would ever assume liability for delivery of such a valuable item to begin with) is considerably higher than $4.49 – or will be, after the first thefts percolate their way through the system.

Just ask anyone who deals with shipping commodity amounts of CPUs or RAM (or iPhones, or Galaxies, etc).

Curt F. August 7, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Is there anything you don’t know about?

Rahul August 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

“One enduring feature of the art world is that a given piece will sell for much more in one context rather than another.”

Enduring Feature? Or annoying bug? Sounds typical of objects that have a snob value. If Amazon does a wee bit to puncture the snotty balloon of high art, it’d have done the world a service, I think.

Franklin August 7, 2013 at 10:20 am

“If Amazon does a wee bit to puncture the snotty balloon of high art, it’d have done the world a service, I think.”

If it ends up reinforcing it by failing at this venture, it will have done it quite a disservice.

Mark Thorson August 7, 2013 at 10:25 am

Why wouldn’t this be like Kindle books? Just as Kindle makes it possible for authors to publish and sell their work without a publisher, artists can sell their work without a gallery.

I suspect the trend will be for larger quantity at lower prices. To be a successful artist, you’ll have to really crank them out. I’d suggest that Amazon organize the paintings by color, to make it easier for interior decorators and real estate stagers to find cost-effective art that matches the room.

anon August 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

Amazon organize the paintings by color, to make it easier for interior decorators and real estate stagers to find cost-effective art that matches the room

+1

Bender Bending Rodriguez August 7, 2013 at 4:44 pm

If they don’t, I suspect someone will do it for them. Wire up this to something that scrapes the
art images (like most media players do for album covers) and et voila

Rahul August 8, 2013 at 7:48 am

Just use google images and restrict search to site: amazon.com/artwhatever and then Google already has a filter images by color.

Dingbat August 7, 2013 at 10:32 am

Amazon is lousy at non-commodity sales of any sort. They have no incentives (or, naturally, institutions) to ensure that their ‘marketplace partners’ have the items in stock, sell the items they say they’re selling, or anything of that nature. This goes for anything from used books to discontinued razor blades (to cite two personally experienced examples). eBay is, in fact, a market, and does a much better job of it.

Gam August 7, 2013 at 10:35 am

the good and the bad ….

search likely will end up being/ meaning = same as ….

this is a digital step towards ‘in-situ’ – wear your google glasses and see the image as if it is in your proper salon … , !

… so then likely it’s not going to be about discovery, but about conformity to what fits into to what you already have or know.

Burninate August 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

Please don’t let this conversation sit without bringing up DeviantArt or high school art shows, where people with zero reputational cachet sell things that on occasion (1%? 0.1%? 0.01%? depends on your taste), are frankly a lot more pleasant to look at than the median work of the Great Names of classical art.

The “art market” is not about wall hangings, it’s about people with too much money who think they can “invest it” in collectibles and get richer, or as a costly signal to others that they are the wealthier ones.

anon August 7, 2013 at 10:50 am

I don’t see the intermediate niche that Amazon is supposed to be trying to fill.

News. And it appears to be working….

Effem August 7, 2013 at 11:20 am

Have there been “blind reviews” done on art (as have been done with wine)? My hunch is that art experts completely disagree on what is “good art.” Art is simply about status…much like wine. Not that anyone involved will ever admit this…much like wine.

MD August 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm

How are you going to do blind reviews of works by Raphael or Manet?

anon August 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm

One pixel at a time.

On Yelp.

Rahul August 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Show them to Chinese experts.

Ian Bertram August 11, 2013 at 11:39 am

There have effectively been blind reviews of work by wellknown photographers on Flickr, where someone posted pictures by Anre Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson in a review grooup – with predictable and hilarious results.

Cameron August 7, 2013 at 11:57 am

When I see economists bitching about the “quality” of art and galleries that are afraid to lose their inner edge and cool factor or take a 25 % cut of the profit, as an artist myself I think of Mitch Hedberg — WHO IS THE REAL HERO?!

Todd August 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm

It’s quite possible that this will prove to be a bad idea, but I wouldn’t bet against Amazon, which is pretty good at coming into an area and eventually driving most of the traditional vendors to the brink of elimination. I wouldn’t be excited about this news if I were a major art dealer or auction house.

Ray Lopez August 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I’m not really into art but I do notice Peter Max has a lot of original art that looks reasonably priced, and cheap. I wonder if he is prolific or something? Only 100 of these were made…100 is not a lot of reprints.

Peter Max
Getting there Quickly, 1972
Screenprint, Framed
Edition of 100
Size : 22 x 30 in.
Frame : Gold Wood
Framed Size : 22 x 30 x 1 in.
See frame details
In Stock.
Ships from and sold by RoGallery. Gift-wrap available.
Price: $3,500.00 + Free Shipping

Steve Sailer August 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm

From 1962-1971, Sears offer original fine art (second tier pieces by name artists including Rembrandt, Chagall, Picasso, and Whistler) through its “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art.”

http://www.searsarchives.com/history/art/

My Marketing 101 professor in B-School had been the Sears executive who had signed the cultured horror movie star to help pick the offerings. It worked well for a number of years, but eventually the market price of even minor pieces by name artists from the past went through the roof, so Sears got out of the business, after selling 50,000 works.

Steve Sailer August 7, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Here’s a brief history of Sears’ decade selling Picassos and Mondrians under Vincent Price’s direction:

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2013/08/amazon-art-v-sears-roebucks-vincent.html

eddie August 8, 2013 at 9:42 am

I would pay a premium for a piece of fine art selected by Vincent Price.

Alexander Fabry August 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Check out Artsy.net for an alternative approach to the digital art market. Artsy is an art startup (I work for it) that’s creating a beautiful destination to discover, learn about, and collect fine art. It’s built around Pandora-like recommendation engine called The Art Genome Project to help people discover new artists and works (scroll to the bottom on http://artsy.net/artwork/andy-warhol-marilyn to see related artworks and see http://artsy.net/browse for an overview of some of the “genes”). There’s a lot of editorial content, since creating a compelling story is a big part of what sells art. And as Tyler mentions, brand can make the difference between a work selling at 2k or 10k — take a look at the works over 50k to get a sense of the difference between Amazon Art and Artsy: http://artsy.net/filter/artworks/price_range=50000:1000000000000&sort=-date_added&page=1.

initialsJZ August 16, 2013 at 10:29 am

AF, how has Artsy or how can eCommerce bolster valuations instead of always discounting on price? Thanks! –JZ

MT August 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm

“best website in the history of the world”? depends on the criteria you’re using to make that assessment. or I’d at least want to know why you’ve ruled out Google and Wikipedia, among others.

RegiaArt August 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I think changes with come faster than you can imagine for the Amazon Art website.
They will open for artists sell directly from the studio. And we’ll see a revolution. That’s what I want. ;)

Elizabeth August 8, 2013 at 5:22 am

Etsy?

Ian Bertram August 11, 2013 at 11:43 am

If Amazon make this work, and they have a record of success after all, then Etsy will have blown their chance. Not so much from the direct competition, but because of their general failure to manage their art categories. They have consistently tolerated mis-selling, inaccurate descriptions and worse to the extent that knowledgeable art buyers see the site as something of a joke. That will be a shame but they had their chance and it looks like they’ve blown it.

madanthony August 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm

I wonder if some of the galleries are using their prices as an opening bid of sort – if they figure people might see a piece of art they are interested in, but then contact the gallery and negotiate a significantly lower price (and avoid paying Amazon’s commission). For the galleries, it’s basically free advertising.

Albigensian August 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Since much of the art here seems to be in the $100. to $1000. category (no one sells original art for $999.99, OK?) perhaps the “above 10k” category is there primarily to lend legitimacy to the marketplace? And perhaps that in itself is why someone might pay $250. for it here yet show no interest in paying $25.for it from e-Bay?

In any case, perhaps there might be a business in selling licensed, numbered (but no limit) made-to-order, poster-quality prints of the displayed artwork?

Thorstein Veblen August 7, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Tyler, I couldn’t agree with you more. As an aesthetically-refined and culturally sophisticated curator of my clients interests, I have the knowledge and, dare I say, taste to help guide my customers to purchases that benefit our society and support the cultural values that encourage the highest level of artistic creation. With greatest regard for our shared sensibilities. Best wishes, Thorstein.

mulp August 8, 2013 at 11:31 am

The Iowa family earning $30,000 annually is advised by you to buy??

DK August 8, 2013 at 11:15 pm

Any family having any income has an almost endless choice of posters and canvas prints for under $100. Minus investment and signaling, works 100%.

mulp August 7, 2013 at 11:39 pm

This post illustrates why Bezos is a billionaire, and Tyler isn’t.

TallDave August 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Is art pricing based on credentialism, then? I’ve never been interested because the whole thing seems so arbitrary and positional.

Cassandra Tondro August 8, 2013 at 5:07 pm

If you think that people won’t buy art online, think again! I regularly sell original art directly from my website.

DK August 8, 2013 at 11:18 pm

We know, a sucker is born every minute. “Art”, LOL.

Andy August 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm

But wouldn’t you like a nice marketplace that can bring artists such as yourself together with consumers without gallery middlemen? I don’t think the Amazon offering does this currently, but that’s what i would hope they’d move towards.

y.z. August 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I have prepared my MJ popcorn already, as review trolls have already started to have fun making fun of abstract paintings and other stuff that is easy target for naysayers with a complete lack of knowledge about the art history or the principles of the art market… and, obviously, praising mediocre neo-neo-impressionist decorative landscapes or still lifes because they are obviously “good art”…

initialsJZ August 16, 2013 at 10:26 am

Tyler, thank you for writing this.

I think your line “(Your) Warhols are weak and overpriced” has viral pop culture potential. I have been saying it to people at art openings. The worst of them stammer “No they are not”, which is when I find out that they even sell Warhols at all. The best of them knew I was just joking and came back with “Your Matisses are faded fakes”, knowing I don’t sell Matisse. Are you going to share this line in any way or create merchandise?

Seriously though, what do you think is the potential for eCommerce to increase value instead of discount pricing? Trying to think of case studies. Mostly, thank you for that line and for your article!

new life christian ministries August 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm

I rarely drop remarks, however i did a few searching and wound up here Is Amazon Art a doomed venture?
Let

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