Art buying was supposed to be disrupted by the internet – what happened?

Despite a flurry of online art startups launching in the past decade, the art world remains dominated by elite auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s

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You’d expect the art trade to have changed radically since auction houses first came into existence around 300 years ago. But the market is still dominated by two of the world’s oldest sales houses: 253-year-old Christie’s, and Sotheby’s – which turned 275 this year.

Despite a flurry of online art sales startups launching over the past decade, many with the aim of disrupting the art world in the style of Spotify or Amazon, it’s still business as usual where the real money is. Most of the work sold by online art companies last year was under $5,000 (£3,900), with less than 10% above $250,000, according this year’s UBS/Art Basel Art Market Report.

“There was all this talk about disrupting the market, that this was the end of the market and that everything was going to move online,” says Clare McAndrew, author of the Art Market Report. “In terms of disrupting, [online startups] haven’t really made the impact or overthrown the incumbents.”

There have of course been technological advances in the way art is bought and sold. Some art fairs, galleries and sites have started trading in bitcoin and using blockchain as a way of authenticating artworks. You can buy a share in a Warhol or a Monet for less than £20 through blockchain-based online platforms. The global online art market grew 9.8% in aggregate in 2018 to $4.64bn , according to the 2019 Hiscox Online Art Trade Report.

But the four online art platforms most trusted by buyers are Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips and Bonhams, the report says, while forecasting “consolidation and casualties” among the new online startups in an overcrowded market. When it comes to high-stakes investments, collectors prefer to stay within the art establishment. “Collectors feel safer with the traditional established brands which give you a great peace of mind with the whole process, due diligence, authenticity, payment terms etc,” says London-based art adviser and collector Daniel Turriani.

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