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 sight-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 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.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. 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.

6 Comments

  1. I have sold a few thousand pieces of commissioned art for the artist through a website and blogs. I discuss the commissions over the phone with the buyer. Then I write a contract which is signed by the artist and buyer. They pay and then he draws. Your points are well taken and concise. Naturally with fine art you have to produce it first and sell and get paid afterwards. Gallerists like art directors have to be convincing in their belief in the talent of the artist and the worthiness of the goods.

    Great advice as always Jason. Anyone not reading everything you write is missing a great opportunity. Thanks again.

  2. One of my most rewarding sales was to an unknown buyer in another province. I picked up the phone in my studio one day and heard the story. His company told him he could have any work of art he wanted as a retirement gift. He and his wife spent 2 nights surfing sculpture over the web, discovered my website, and decided to get one of my bronze sculptures. There was just enough time to have a new bronze cast and patinated from him and get it to him before the retirement ceremony. I’ve made other sales over the web, but none of them had quite the emotional impact for me as that one.

  3. The key I think is that first point under website you make. The site must be professional.
    And that means really decent photographs. The media rule of thumb, pre-digital, was “high resolution.”
    Now that means large-format/ high resolution. You can always reduce the image but it’s disaster to increase it.
    A painting “in the flesh” is the highest possible resolution because there is no translation to another medium. That’s a major selling point in my estimation for seeing the actual work.

    There’s another aspect and that is size and scale. A “room” shot might help a bit, but your setting is not the photographic one. The actual piece will of course feel different once it’s “home”, but that’s true anyway.

    One thing is for sure- the art work has to be seen in some form, somehow and those forms have increased in the last couple of decades.

  4. Jason, your blog is a priceless resource for any artist looking for straightforward information on selling art. Thank you for doing this!

  5. I agree with it all in this article! I have a gallery in Maryland and came to the same conclusions. The website is necessary and valuable but I wouldnt want to rely solely on it for sales. Reading your blog validates and teaches me a lot! I value it like a co-worker:). Thank you for your candid and valuable information. I have your book too.

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