The Art Collector's Handbook : Considerations Before You Click: Buying Artwork Online - by Mary Rozell

In anticipation of the release of the new edition of 'The Art Collector's Handbook', author Mary Rozell -- who has been the Global Head of UBS's collection of over 30,000 artworks since 2015 -- considers the possibilities and pitfalls of buying artwork online and gives us four useful tips for how to go about it effectively... 


Considerations Before You Click: Buying Artwork Online


When it comes to viewing art, the digital experience is no substitute for seeing a work in person. Buying art online nonetheless had become an appealing option for many collectors over the last several years due to the convenience it offers as well as the greater transparency and accessibility to the market. Millennial collectors have demonstrated a robust appetite for online art buying, and higher priced sales have increased as technology evolves and greater trust is established.


Despite these developments, the growth of online art sales had been relatively contained and the majority of online transactions still occurred at the lower end of the market. In fact, according to the 2020 UBS and Art Basel Art Market Report, online sales of art and antiques represented just 9% of sales in the art market by value - a 2% decrease from the previous year. 


All of this changed, of course, when the global COVID-19 pandemic shifted the entire art market online. With live auctions, art fairs and galleries suddenly closed for business, online viewing rooms and digital exhibitions became almost the exclusive means to acquire art. Under these new conditions, more and more collectors have been taking a leap of faith, acquiring unfamiliar works that they have never laid eyes on and at price points that might have hitherto been unthinkable. 


The comfort level of buying art online is quite high when one is already familiar with the individual artwork or a particular body of work. When it comes to unfamiliar pieces or new discoveries, however, it is impossible to know exactly what one is getting when buying an artwork via the Internet. In some cases, collectors are happily surprised with the artwork they receive; in other cases, they are not. In all cases, the risk of buying an artwork online is greater. How to mitigate this risk? Whether wanting to take advantage of new opportunities or a desire to continue supporting galleries during this challenging period, collectors who find themselves in the online space may want to consider the following when contemplating an acquisition:


1 Ask more questions. Collectors should not be shy about asking as many questions as possible about the work, even it feels a bit awkward via email as opposed to an onsite discussion. While it is always important to seek as much information as possible about an artwork before committing to a purchase, not being able to visually assess a work in person creates gaps. Buyers should request information about the fabrication process, weight, texture, handling or climate specifications, signature and/or stamp details, artist’s framing preferences or specs, past conservation issues, etc. -- and not worry if the list of questions starts to feel long. This is particularly important in the case of secondary market works where condition can be an issue.


2 Request a video. If three-dimensional views are not already provided, videos can be tremendously helpful when it comes to buying a new work unseen in person. The clip should capture the artwork in its entirety, including its edges, and zoom in on the various components such as brushstroke features, figurative detail, framing, etc. Having the gallery or studio staff move around the work can also add helpful perspective with respect to dimension. Most galleries are happy to accommodate such requests.


3 Explore a consignment. Where shipping is possible, collectors considering acquiring a high-value item may want to ask whether the gallery might lend the work for a specified time period so that it could be considered in situ. This practice can benefit the seller, too. The legendary British art dealer Joseph Duveen would dispatch works that had never even been requested to clients’ homes, knowing that having a work hanging on one’s wall makes it harder to part with. Perhaps this custom will become more common within the realm of the 'new normal'.


4 Rely on relationships. As always, one’s relationships in the business can make all the difference in trying situations. When taking the risk of buying a work online, it’s important to consider one’s history (or lack thereof) with the seller and to do business with those who have proven to be trustworthy. There are many cases where an artwork is not what it appeared to be, whether it be an issue of quality or condition – then what? If a strong relationship exists, it may be possible to return or exchange the work. Where this is not the case, a buyer should seek such assurances in writing in advance to avoid unpleasant and costly incidents. Buyers will be more likely to a commit to a work purchased online when there is a possibility of annulling the deal if the work is defective.


-- Mary Rozell, 2020


You can now order Mary Rozell's 'The Art Collector's Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Acquiring and Owning Art' HERE.


Paperback • 256 Pages • Size: 240 × 170 mm
30 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224018 • Publication: September 03, 2020


You may also be interested in reading Nicola Pickering's 'The Museum Curator's Guide'.