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

35 Comments

  1. Thanks for the pointers! It would be folly to disregard the power of the internet. I’ve spent a good deal of time building a platform on which I can advertise my own work, when I get to the point that I’m ready to have a marketplace. I’m planning to display close-ups of the work beside the entire piece (I suppose that’s obvious, but I feel like I just thought of it.) Also taking a cue from the movie Big Eyes and I will always have prints available for sale.

    In my case, I will probably highlight the close-up as I think it’s the strong point of my work. And then the masses can let me know I’m wrong about that!

  2. A couple years ago I did a painting of a small steam ship which had sunk at a dock in the city where I live. I did some research on the vessel and discovered she was once used as General MacArthur’s signal ship in WWII. There was an interesting story behind her uses after MacArthur and how she came to be sitting half submerged in West Central Florida. I included the story with the image on my website making sure to use names and places connected with the ship. Sure enough, I was contacted by a woman whose father had served under MacArthur on the ship. She purchased the painting to add to a collection of heirlooms and was quite pleased.

  3. I’ve made a number of sales sight-unseen through the internet. Most have come from the online galleries where I show my work, but some have come from people discovering my website. Most have been for smaller, less expensive pieces but a few have been substantial. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more active on social media to promote my work and drive traffic to my website.

  4. Jason,

    My wife has been an artist for many years and about a year ago we re-tooled our website. The site capabilities and visuals certainly meet number 1 and 2 in your list of must-haves. We also have a very sophisticated mechanism for viewing the art and an e-commerce capability. Her work is also found in some local wineries but no official gallery presence. So, our goal is to address the gallery issue as well as find a way to expand our traffic which has been a real challenge. This has been a real challenge for sure.

  5. The works that I’ve sold through my website have all been to people I’ve met, with pricing from the mid- to high-range. I believe the website is doing its job by allowing the collector an easy avenue for viewing new work or revisiting work they’ve already seen in person. I’m thankful that the internet has put so much power in the hands of the artist, however imperfectly we use the tools.

  6. I am an artist, also an art lover and buyer. I have purchased many original works of art directly online. They have all been small works and or relatively small financial transactions usually under $200. I enjoy buying fine art prints, woodcuts, linocuts and small oil paint studies usually under 8″ x 10″ and usually from emerging artists. I think selling small studies online is a great a way for artists to connect with buyers and develop a relationship that may lead to selling larger works. Jason is correct that large financial transactions are best done through a reputable gallery or from an artist you are familiar with.

  7. My website is used almost exclusively to allow those who want commissioned work a place to view many of my paintings. Having paintings that they can reference helps me see what they find in a work that appeals to them. I usually request they pick three or more paintings and explain what it is about the paintings that appeals to them. I do lots of commissions mainly due to custom sizes.

    I rarely sell a painting from my website, but for paintings already in galleries, I link the photo to that gallery’s website.

    I see my website as more of a tool than a storefront.

  8. Thank you for posting this. I have been feeling terrible as my art never, repeat never has sold online. However, if I do shows or people come to my gallery I make sales. It is refreshing to know I am not too blame.

  9. When I was living on Maui, I met many people through art events and I collected their info even if they didn’t purchase anything. Years later some of those people did purchase through my website. Others were clients who either knew me well or had made previous purchases. I also did a monthly mailing and every few months that resulted in a sale.
    I have a disclaimer on my site that lets potential buyers know that since they are buying from an image on their computer screen and the colors from the screen image to the original could be different. I allow the buyer to have the art for two weeks in their home to see that it works and meets their satisfaction, if not they can return for a full refund. Fortunately I have not had that happen. It is also vital to your reputation with galleries not to undercut the gallery representing you. If a client sees your work in a gallery and then contacts you through your website, you owe the gallery a finders fee or commission. I also give finders fee to clients who have passed on my information to other people and that results in a sale. Win win for everyone.
    I know it takes a lot of work managing online presence, and I know personally I need to do more with it. It is not the sole means of sales as Jason pointed out so well the different ways internet sales work. It is just another piece in the artists tool box for generating sales. Good article.

      1. With clients it has been 10%. Most take it in trade to more art work. If my work was seen in an art gallery then they track me down on the internet- then a higher percentage goes to them depending on the commission structure and how much gallery involvement was there. It can be the full gallery commission. The main point with that is not to undercut the gallery and damage your reputation with them.

  10. I am commenting anonymously because I don’t want people to think I am boastful. But I do want people to know that Jason is correct, you can sell paintings on the internet to people you’ve never met. This year, I sold six paintings over $1000 (four in the US and two outside the US) and 10 paintings under $1000 (one outside the US) on the internet to people I didn’t know.

    The first thing you’ve got to do is have prices and “buy now” buttons on your artwork. If you don’t have that, you haven’t tried to sell your work online yet (IMHO).

    Next, address a buyer’s possible concerns on the artwork page. Does it come framed or unframed? Does it have a money-back satisfaction guarantee in case they don’t like it? How much is shipping? (Hopefully the answer is free!)

    When posting on social media, mention the painting is for sale on your website and suggest they mosey on over to check it out. ;^)

    I hope this helps.

    1. “The first thing you’ve got to do is have prices and “buy now” buttons on your artwork. If you don’t have that, you haven’t tried to sell your work online yet (IMHO).” – Amen! “Inquire for pricing” or “serious offers only” are the 2 best ways not to sell art online that I’ve ever come across! lol

  11. A couple of years ago I did a painting of an old steamboat that sunk at the dock in the city where I live. I did little research and discovered the vessel was originally built to serve as General MacArthur’s signal ship during WWII. The story of how she came to be half submerged at a dock in West Central Florida was equally interesting. So, I posted an image of the painting along with the backstory on my site. I was sure to mention names and places connected with the ship. A woman from California found my site searching for info about the ship and contacted me about the painting. Her father had served on the vessel under MacArthur during WWII. She purchased the painting to add to a collection of heirlooms.

  12. I am a mid career artist and recently sold my first painting solely from website exposure (my website has been active for many years.) It was a 30 x 24 inch figurative oil on canvas for $2500 to a person in another geographic region. I was amazed that they wanted to buy it without seeing it in person and was wary of a some sort of scam. After a couple of email exchanges, we finally traded phone numbers and I was able to talk with the buyer. This was very reassuring as I got a little background and was able to lay out terms: no checks or money orders, PayPal only before shipping. The buyer even offered to pay for packing and shipping and sent me a FedEx label. Needless to say, I was very happy to make the sale. Earlier this year a gallery hosting some of my work had a similar experience selling a piece of my work sight unseen. I think the author of this article may be correct in that people are feeling comfortable buying goods so this has extended to artwork. Hooray!

  13. I have made online sales of my Artwork without my collectors seeing it for real. We are still in the early days of selling Art online but it can only improve because the internet is not going to go away! Keep at it!

  14. Very good summary Jason… The mindset of today’s younger art collector is very different then those of the past. Other gallerists have concurred with me that the generation today is not as interested, (as prior generations) in the adventure of gallery hopping, to find that perfect work of art. Instead such shows as “Art Basel” have provided them the opportunity and convenience to look at a world of artists under one roof. Once they have looked at an artist’s work in person, they are comfortable to purchase a work by the same artist which they have seen online. It amazes me how people today are purchasing high priced items such as automobiles and real estate over the internet. It is all the more reason to make sure that the images which you place online of your artwork, are of the best quality which you can provide.

  15. Recently, collectors have seen my paintings in a hotel or restaurant that has purchased the piece(s) and called me to do commission pieces because they looked me up and found my website. That was cool!

    On the rest of the topic, I set up my website so the paintings that are in galleries send collectors to the respective gallery to purchase those paintings. The prices are the same, whether the painting is in my studio or in a gallery.

    Here’s the thing. I’m curious to know how everyone feels about which takes precedence in a sale, the one who physically has the painting, or the one who takes the call, when the painting has changed places (e.g., to another gallery, to my studio, etc.). Paintings do move around. Collectors move around, too. The collector’s feet may be in a totally different gallery when they finally buy the painting they originally saw months or years ago in another gallery. So, who gets the sale?

    1. What a great name you have!
      That is a hard topic. Most contracts I have signed allow a 2 to 3 month “grace period” past the showing.
      BUT if the client makes the purchase at another show, it legally goes to where it is.
      If you would like to send a “thank you” amount to the previous show-ers, that is your prerogative but not really obligation. It would come out of your royalties.

  16. I have sold several paintings off Facebook without the art being seen in a gallery but possibly on my webpage as well. One such sale went to an office and a co worker of the person who purchased the painting liked it so much she also purchased a painting off the website without previously buying my art. But that being said the majority of my sales still go through either galleries or an art festival type setting where I am there to physically sell.

    My question pertaining to this subject matter though is the pricing of galleries verses the price I want. Some galleries charge a higher commission than others and some buyers think because they are buying straight from the artist the price should be lower since they don’t have to pay a commission. To avoid this I have not listed prices but let the buyer contact me for a price. I know that probably isn’t the best method either but would like to know what everyone else does.

    1. Christine,
      I realize that when different galleries charge different commissions, it creates pricing problems for the artist. Should the artist keep the retail price constant (which would be ideal) or should the artist keep his/her net price constant and allow the galleries to do what they will? I have mixed feeling about this, but I am convinced that the artist should not undersell the gallery. That practice has shortcomings in the long run. Something also to consider is that if you do the marketing, promotion and selling, then you are basically doing what the gallery does and therefore you should be paid for that.
      So my recommendation to you is to list your prices but stick to the same retail value as the galleries post.
      http://www.davidmckayartist.com

  17. I sell 99% of my work online (I use Jason’s artsala for my website) I have sent my work to over 31 countries and I’m one of the best sellers on ArtFinder for 2018.

    I live and work in Thailand we don’t have art fairs, galleries and museums as you do in America & Europe, or not as you know them, but we have a lot of tourists galleries, I had 2 myself but gave them up years ago to concentrate online.

    It’s not easy selling online and you have to work hard at it but once you start to build your followers and TRUST it does get a lot easier, I have a lot of my collectors come back for more of my work and I get a lot of requests for commissions.

    For me, without the internet, I would be selling my work for a pittance to tourists who think because they are on holiday in Thailand they can pay pennies for art.

    I read not long ago that nobody bought shoes online, now shoes are one of the fastest growing commodities sold online.

    Only this week I sent 2 paintings to NY and 1 Washington and 3 to Niagara Falls (the Candian side) so I have a lot of confidence in the future and selling online.

    I write this not to brag but to give people confidence If I can do it a girl who left school at 12 to work in the rice fields of Thailand that with a lot of work you too can do it.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement. I will admit I was an remain fearful of getting work to my website. It was done in the old “coding” days and was more than I could handle. I have internet contacts all over the world and yet, no real internet presence beyond that.|
      Thanks again for posting.

  18. My biggest question is how to drive people to my website. I am with FASO but have never sold a thing. I have managed to get 3 people to sign up for my newsletter/blog..whoopee.
    This year I have sold $20.00 worth of art. So not being at all successful online or any venue. I take it as a statement about my art…but if no one is looking..is it my art or just not being high enough on a search engine? I use Facebook,Instagram etc. I spend money for the website, postcards and business cards. I spent days promoting an art sale via those postcards and emails. Crickets!!
    Trying to be positive and I am happy others are finding success. But I am close to just hanging it all up.

  19. It is clear that the internet is more and more presenting an opportunity for artists to display and sell their works. However too many artists think that creating or retooling their web site is all that needs to be done to promote their on line sales. Now that may help but be aware that there are many artists on the internet with dynamite sites and the challenge is how to stand out from the crowd and get attention. And with more sites by artists coming on line every day the challenge is growing.

    I have had an online web site for 18 years and I am still learning about how to utilize it to sell my art. And I continue learning because the technology for the internet is continuously expanding. First it is important to have a web site optimized for SEO (search engine optimization) to get seen. Then making posts on social media regularly is also critical for exposure. And lately I am discovering that video is growing more powerful in both showing your art to an audience but also having them meet you and hear what you have to say about it. Some artists are even using Facebook Live to do impromptu sessions showing a technique or activity.

    A lot of artists think that a web site is all there is to online promotion and sales, but that is only the starting point. And getting tuned in to the rapid changes with technology and how you can use it as an artist will help make the idea of internet sales of art works a growing reality.

  20. I’ve sold over 200 paintings online to people who hadn’t seen them in person first. In some cases, because I have a specific style I’m dedicated to, people hire me to do custom art for them, and they ask me not to send progress shots, not to send pics, they want a surprise when they open the box. So, I’ve even sold art that was never seen at all before it was paid for! lol And I’ve never had anyone ask to return a piece.

  21. I have found having my work online helps people consider the work and they have contacted me regarding it. I also now am collecting contacts from my new website and hope to keep it going. I also like to reference galleries that have the work and link to them.
    I appreciate all the comments from artists about the internet and good advice on keeping positive about it. There seems to be a benefit that photography of artwork is relatively easy to obtain these days so that we can present a decent image online for art buyers and though there are many artists out there, their artwork can connect and speak personally to viewers and it has become possible even on line – Amazing really.

  22. Only one comment above referenced the on line scams. My only experience with people interested in buying my work in line has been with scammers who are interested in gaining access to my bank account with direct deposits. My skepticism and wariness raise big red flags every time I have a request to purchase on line.

    How have successful art sellers forged passed the trolls? Aside from numerous emails and phone calls (the previous artist referenced), how do you ascertain the request to buy your art is real and not some crappy scam?

    1. We face this challenge too – a lot of inquiries from scammers. We don’t spend a lot of time interacting with them. All of the art is available for purchase on our website, and we only accept credit card payments for online inquiries. Once we make this known to the scammers, they disappear. I’ll write a more detailed post on this in the near future.

  23. My question is sort of an extension of commenter Middlekauf’s, re: gallery commission of a painting purchased from my website. What’s a “grace period” that governs whether a gallery gets a commission on an on-line sale? Here’s a related scenario: In early ’17, I had a solo show at a small local gallery (actually, a coffee shop gallery). Since that show, a woman has contacted me on-line from time to time about a particular painting she saw there. If she does finally purchase it — whether in 2019 or [if it’s still available] in 2021 — does that ‘gallery’ still get a commission? Or, how about this: Someone sees my work at, say, three different shows, and ultimately purchases a painting from my website. Am I obligated to extend a commission to one of the show hosts? or to all three?

  24. I’ve sold art in two places: directly to members of groups I belong to (most of which expect to pay “hobby” prices), and eBay (where I’m competing with Chinese low-ball pricing artists unless I have an “ultra-niche” subject, which might attract “bargain buyers”)

  25. Thanks for this article. I have been busy getting paintings ready for physical shows and have neglected my website, which gets a decent amount of traffic. This post, along with a customer who recently mentioned going to my site to check out my work, has given me the kick in the seat of the pants I need to update the site, putting it on my to-do list for the next couple weeks.

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