Myths and Misconceptions of the Art World | Myth #3 – People Need to See Art In Person to Buy It

The art business myth I’m going to tackle today is that art buyers are unlikely to buy online because art needs to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Many artists and gallerists cling to this idea in a mixture of frustration and hope. Frustration because selling art online has proven more difficult than anticipated, and hope because if it’s a general truism that artwork doesn’t sell online, we don’t have to worry that we’re doing something wrong with our websites or feel guilty about not doing more.

For gallerists there is an added dimension. If art were to sell easily online, it would make galleries less necessary.

Whenever discussing online art sales, there tends to be a bit of surprise when I report that my gallery makes quite a few sales online every month, and that, counter to conventional wisdom, we have made many large sales online.

As the internet has matured, I’ve learned that artwork of all shapes and sizes can and does sell online. Though we still see a majority of our sales in our bricks and mortar gallery, internet sales continue to grow year after year, and have become a critical piece of our success.

The challenge when talking about online sales is that there are actually several distinctly different ways that the internet is involved in art sales. We need to distinguish between these different types of sales in order to determine whether the myth is valid.

Different Kinds of Online Sales

Internet Assisted Sale

The most common type of sale involving the internet for my gallery is the one in which the client has been to the gallery and has seen the artwork in person, and then returns home and visits our website to view the work again as part of the decision making process. In many cases, I or my staff will email the client an image of the piece that was of interest.

This kind of internet/real-world sale is very common. I would estimate that the internet plays some role in at least 70% of all of our sales.

In these sales, the client feels very comfortable viewing the work online because he or she has already seen the art in person and so has a good sense of how closely the imagery seen online matches the real thing.

Artist Follower Sale Over the Internet

A similar kind of online sale occurs when a buyer is familiar with a particular artist’s work and stays up to date through the artist’s or gallery’s website. When a new, interesting artwork becomes available, the client might learn about it through the site or via an email newsletter.

Again, the client is comfortable with purchasing the work because she is already familiar with the quality of the artist’s work and knows what to expect in that regard even if she hasn’t seen the new piece in person.

We have many collectors who buy art site-unseen this way. I wouldn’t think of this sale as a purely internet-based transaction because the buyer has still likely physically been in my gallery or encountered the artist’s work in person. The internet just facilitated the discovery of new work.

Gallery Collector Sale Over the Internet

We also make many online sales to buyers who have visited the gallery in the past, but haven’t seen the work of a new artist that we are featuring. They might see the new work on our homepage, or on our artist’s page, or in an e-newsletter.

Though they don’t know exactly what to expect in terms of the particular artist’s work, they know and trust us as a gallery, and have a strong sense of the quality of the other work we carry in the gallery. Our gallery lends new artists credibility in the eyes of these collectors.

Internet Sale to an Unknown Buyer

The final kind of online sale we’ll consider is what I consider to be a “pure” internet sale – a sale that is made completely online to a buyer who discovered the art website through a search or other website. This buyer was unaware of either the gallery or the artist before the purchase.

This kind of sale is one of the most rare, and one of the most intriguing. In the early days of the internet, I suspect we all hoped that this kind of sale would happen regularly, and that, as a result, we’d all become rich!

The reality is that there are a number of factors that suppress this kind of sale from occurring regularly. First, there is a lot of noise on the internet. With hundreds of thousands of artists online (millions?), the odds of being randomly discovered by an interested, qualified buyer are long. Even if a potential buyer does stumble across your site somehow, they have to feel confident enough in you and your work to make a large financial transaction in order to purchase artwork they haven’t seen in person.

There are a lot of obstacles to overcome to get to a sale, and, consequently, these sales are very rare. Thus, the myth, that artwork won’t sell online.

There’s only one problem, we have made many such sales over the years, and I know of a number of artists who have as well.

When I tell artists that we have sold art sight-unseen online, their first reaction is: “sure, but it was for lower priced work, wasn’t it?”

While it is true that it’s easier to make small sales online to unknown buyers, we have made a number of significant art sales online, including a number in the $10,000+ price range. As art collectors become more and more comfortable with buying goods online, it’s inevitable that they will likewise become more comfortable buying art online.

While it is likely the pure internet sale will remain a minority of online art sales, the four types of sales I have listed here add up to a significant opportunity for boosting sales. Any artist or gallery owner who is neglecting online sales opportunities does so to their own disadvantage.

Optimizing for Online Sales

In order to take advantage of online art sales opportunities, keep the following points in mind.

1. Your site should present your work in a professional way. It’s important for your website to look modern and clean, and for it to be easy to navigate.
2. Your site should be up to date. It’s critical that you be able to upload your own images so that you can always keep your site current.
3. You need traffic! It’s important to drive as much traffic as you can to your site. You should promote your website to contacts you make at shows or other events. You should have an email newsletter. You should be active on social media. Getting traffic takes work and time, but it is worth the effort.
4. You should have an online purchase mechanism, such as a shopping cart, or a very easy way for potential buyers to get in contact with you.
5. Showing in galleries will boost your online visibility and traffic to your website. Just be sure that if clients are discovering your website after visiting a gallery site, that the gallery is getting credit and commissions on any sales that are made.

The internet offers unparalleled opportunities for artists and galleries to increase their exposure and sales, and we are still in the very early days of online marketing. I’m grateful for the sales we make online, and I’m excited about the prospects of growth for internet sales.

Have You Sold Artwork Through Your Website?

Has the internet become an important part of your art business? Have you sold artwork sight-unseen to collectors? Share your experiences selling online in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

10 Comments

  1. I planned a respite year in 2019 to care for my 93 year old Mum. I entered very few calls to exhibit or shows and produced very little new art. If it wasnt for two large internet sales my income would be negligible. One large sale was through a remotely managed group platform which takes a sizeable commission and one custom order was via a small non paid ad on FB. Both patrons were completely unknown to me and not from my area. I thought my income would be zero this year, but it ended up being my best year ever. It had confirmed my theory that it is possible to sell my large works on the internet. All I can say is that you have to stick with it and constantly refresh your marketing plan by reading everything you can on promoting art. Red Dot is one of my go to places to do that.

    1. Sea, I thought the name seems familiar and clicked the to confirm it is indeed you. Small world!

      Anyway, Jason, I’ve been reading your blog posts and this one is yet another very well laid out article. Very helpful in planning out online marketing/sales.

  2. Great timing on this article. As an artist, I collect art too. In fact I saw a great piece on Facebook while the artist was using his phone to show the paintings he had on his Pro Panels during a weekend show. He panned by a piece that was perfect for my home. It was a snap to contact him and complete the sale. So even a promo of your booth can sell art!

  3. I am also an artist who collects art, and I have seen a lot of art in person and online. I have purchased two paintings and a sculpture over the internet, sight unseen, by artists that I was not formerly familiar with. All of the art was very true to the high resolution photographs shown online. I think this proves that a good quality photo of the art is essential.

  4. Good topic to discuss as I also thought with internet that sales would come flooding in from all over the world . Not really although I had one new collector doing a google search for “cereals from the sixties “ found a story about me and bought a $1,500 painting … he has since collected 5 more pieces . This has now happened over the course of my short art career (15years) about 6 times . I do promise myself to have the web site revamped in the new year . As the web site sometimes is the only connection a collector may have it needs to be polished and up to date . Also thru shows people see my art , touch it feel it ( I encourage as very tactful) . Then when they see something on my sight they are more comfortable to collect my art . I always ask when someone reaches out to me how they found out about my art ? I also believe it’s good karma to give a commission to a gallery if they had seen me there, even when client reaches out to me directly or I will advise them to please contact gallery

  5. I recently sold a piece on-line to a woman in Taiwan. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure it was legitimate, but it all checked out. I wasn’t able to confirm how she found out about my work; possibly, the language barrier kept us from communicating well. In any case, it definitely was a surprise sale and very welcomed. And, since I do wearable art it shipped fairly easily.

  6. I take a different approach to my website – instead of being modern, clean and professional looking and trying to appeal to everyone, mine is warm and fuzzy, a bit quirky, and carefully designed to directly communicate with my niche audience (middle aged, artsy women who love to dance, hang out with friends, love bold colors…). Definitely not for everyone!

    What has worked for me is a ‘come-sit-down-at-my-table’ style of website, as well as straight-from-the-heart newsletters and blog posts that have helped potential customers overcome buying anxiety. By the time my customers buy, they feel as if they know me personally.

    And this approach HAS worked for me:
    I’ve sold quite a few low-to-mid-range ($500-$1200) paintings (for instance 9 paintings in the 3rd quarter of 2019) as well as a handful of mid-range ($150-$450) wearable art in the same time frame and stacks of books and prints every week. Most sales are to people who haven’t seen my work in person, but who have been following me and looking at my artwork on-line for a long time.

    I believe the key to selling art on-line is all about understanding your niche audience and then speaking (in written words and images) directly to them!

  7. My website is set up for sales but I primarily created it because having one is a prerequisite for many show submissions. Excitingly for me, my first web sale was a fairly large painting on panel and it was purchased by a fellow in Scotland! International shipping details and the VAT were a bit of a bear to figure out but it all worked out and the buyer said he liked it even better in person and sent a photo. I’ve had several sales from my website but most have been from shows. Tho I had a work-in-progress sell from a FB post. Planning to concentrate on new series work in the coming year.

  8. There are many online galleries like Saatchiart that are successfully developing their business model. Some online galleries like Singulart even take a step in the offline direction and participate in the art fairs. I personally sell over 80% of my work online.

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