Let's say you're not a millionaire but you're still interested in buying affordable art from the comfort of your living room. Where do you find something that is between craft-oriented websites like Etsy and high-end auction houses like Sotheby's? Now, new companies — like Paddle8, Ocula, Artline, Saatchi Art, Artsy, Amazon Art — are trying to fill the gap.
In a sun-drenched loft near downtown Los Angeles, carefully coiffed curatorial assistants are talking art with buyers over the phone. This is the West Coast office of Paddle8, an online marketplace that sells mid-range art. It was co-founded in 2011 by Alexander Gilkes, 35, formerly the chief auctioneer for Phillips, the third-largest auction house.
Much of the art on his site is within reach of a middle-class consumer, he says: "Our average selling price across the site is $5,000."
Online art sales went up more than 30 percent last year, according to an analysis by the European Fine Art Fair. It found the online market is mostly mid-range art — a growing and lucrative — niche. Even Sotheby's teamed up with eBay this spring, after its online art sales shot up 100 percent last year, according to a company video.
Like eBay, Paddle8 is an auction site, but unlike eBay, everything's curated and authenticated. And being in the digital space comes with some economic advantages that Paddle8 says it passes along to its customers. For example, Paddle8 does not have to staff and schedule expensive viewings in posh locations or take months to produce costly catalogs.
"You can send an image, we can do a remote appraisal," explains Paddle8 managing director James Salzmann. "We can have it up for sale in a matter of days."
The downside, of course, is getting art lovers to connect with a piece of art viscerally through a computer screen, says artist and former art critic William Powhida.
"That's harder to do online," he mulls, adding that, in a hierarchical and elitist art world, it's hard to see how online art sales will even work if they sideline critics, shows and the pleasure of seeing art with other art lovers.
"It becomes so much more transactional," he says.
That doesn't bother the tech entrepreneurs behind Ziibra, another new art-sales website. Matt Monahan, 29, a tech investor turned artist, says, "Historically, the problem has been that the gatekeepers are curators and gallarists and the people over at Sotheby's who decide who gets to be a famous artist. Me and my tech buddies are about to change all that, we're going to disrupt it!"
Just as Uber disrupted transportation, he says.
Ziibra's founder, 24-year-old Omri Mor, seeks to create a personal connection between buyer and artist. He scouts for artists on Instagram, and then posts slick videos of Ziibra's artists in their studios.
Ziibra is trying to make consumers feel like collectors, says Powhida, and he thinks it's a smart strategy — to a point. "I just don't know how much is real and how much is marketing," he says.
Powhida believes that much of the art sold online seems meant to appeal to a mass audience. As a result, it's generally not particularly challenging. "Most of the work I saw was sort of colorful and decorative and had a strong visual appeal," he says. "That's probably the nicest way I can say it."
But the visual appeal is crucial, says Mor, who plans to improve technology for seeing the art you might want to buy online.
"I'm going to build holograms," he declares.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Anything you want to buy, you can easily get online, even fine art. Let's say you're interested in purchasing affordable art from the comfort of your living room. Where can you go that's between high-end auction houses, like Sotheby's, and craft-oriented websites, like Etsy? NPR's Neda Ulaby visited a few virtual spaces that are somewhere in the middle.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So the auction closes tomorrow, Thursday, at 2:00 p.m. Pacific...
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In a sundrenched loft near downtown Los Angeles, carefully coiffed curatorial assistants are talking art with art buyers over the phone.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, it is. It's a beautiful piece, actually.
ULABY: We're in the west coast office of Paddle8 with its 35-year-old British cofounder Alexander Gilkes. He says much of the stuff on this site is within reach of an art-loving, middle-class consumer.
ALEXANDER GILKES: Our average selling price across the site is $5,000.
ULABY: Gilkes used to be the chief auctioneer for the world's third-largest auction house, Phillips. Everyone here has blue-chip pedigrees, including west coast director James Salzmann.
JAMES SALZMANN: The whole time I was at Sotheby's, there was a general assumption that people would never spend more than about $10,000 on something sight unseen.
ULABY: That is, without seeing it for real. But Paddle8 sells art like that every week and much more affordable art, too. Online art sales went up more than 30 percent last year, according to analysis by the European Fine Art Fair. It found the online market is mostly midrange art, a growing and lucrative niche.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOTHEBY'S COMPANY VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is the beginning of a really exciting season for us here at Sotheby's.
ULABY: Sotheby's online art sales shot up 100 percent last year, according to a company video. This year, it teamed up with eBay to sell even more art online. Like them, Paddle8 is an auction website. It's an elegant interface with high-def images. And everything's authenticated and curated, unlike eBay's tsunami of stuff that could be anything from anywhere. Plus, says James Salzmann, Paddle8 has an economic advantage. It doesn't have to staff viewings in posh locations or produce costly catalogs.
SALZMANN: You can send an image. We can do a remote appraisal. We can have it up for sale in a matter of days.
ULABY: The booming online art world includes Ocula, Artline, Saatchi, even Amazon Art. Another site, Artsy, is partnered with hundreds of galleries around the world, including the Tina Kim Gallery in New York. Nicole Calderon is the associate director.
NICOLE CALDERON: It's a question of accessibility.
ULABY: So far, Calderon says, the gallery has not seen a lot of sales through Artsy.
CALDERON: For us, it's more of an advertising tool.
ULABY: The face-to-face experience of viewing art is still vital, says artist and former art critic, William Powhida.
WILLIAM POWHIDA: That is harder to do online.
ULABY: Plus, Powhida says, he's just not sure how online art sales will work if they sideline critics, shows and just the pleasure of seeing art with other art lovers.
POWHIDA: You know, it becomes so much more transactional.
ULABY: We're going to turn a corner, literally and metaphorically, to an entirely different model of selling mid-priced art online to another LA loft, just a few blocks away from Paddle8, where a few twenty-something tech entrepreneurs in hoodies and beards nosh on sushi and listen to music.
MATTHEW MONOHAN: It's our favorite band from Burning Man, Robot Heart.
ULABY: That's Matthew Monohan. Here's how he and his buddy Merrick, just Merrick, talk about selling art online.
MERRICK: I think the value add for the artist would be both matching community and having inbound and outbound network effect.
ULABY: That's the concept behind a website called Ziibra. That's Ziibra spelled with two Is. Monohan is a 29-year-old tech-investor-turned-artist.
MONOHAN: Historically, the problem has been that the gatekeepers are curators and gallerists and the people over at Sotheby's who decide who gets to be a famous artist. Me and my tech buddies are about to change all that. We're going to disrupt it.
ULABY: Like Uber disrupted transportation, he says. Ziibra's founder is 24-year-old Omri Mor, who scouts for artists on Instagram. His goal is to create a personal connection between buyer and artist.
OMRI MOR: Once you get to connect with their personality and say, yeah, that aligns with me, that's when you become really proud.
ULABY: Proud to buy their work. So he posts slick videos of artists in their studios, like Elanie Hannula talking about drawing a dear. (SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
ELANIE HANNULA: One night, I was falling asleep, and I just saw this picture of a deer on this floating piece of grass.
ULABY: Ziibra is trying to make consumers feel like collectors, says artist William Powhida.
POWHIDA: It seems like a smart attempt to do that, I just don't know how real that is, I guess, or how much of it is sort of marketing.
ULABY: Art sold online, Powhida says, seems meant to appeal to a mass audience.
POWHIDA: Most of the work that I saw was sort of very colorful and decorative and had a strong visual appeal. That's probably the nicest way I can say it (laughter).
ULABY: But the visual appeal is critical, says Ziibra founder, Omri Mor. He plans to improve the technology for viewing art to buy online.
MOR: I'm going to build holograms.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.