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Boom or bubble: how sustainable is the recent success of the online art trade?

2020 saw a dramatic shift towards online art buying as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic...

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips online-only auction sales broke $1 billion in 2020, up 524% from 2019, while more than three quarters (82%) of new art collectors we surveyed bought works online last year vs. just 36% in 20191.

In Part Three, the final chapter of the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2020, we explore the issues experienced by online art buyers that must be overcome if the successes of 2020 are to become a more permanent fixture. We address the online customer journey in five key stages:

  1. Trust in the seller: how can a buyer determine whether a platform and its sellers are trust-worthy? Over a third (35%) of existing online art buyers regard customer reviews as an essential part of their decision-making process, but this has yet to become common practice amongst the platforms we analysed.
  2. The artwork: can a buyer confidently establish the quality, condition, authenticity or provenance history of a piece? Three-quarters (75%) of hesitant online art buyers told us that not being able to physically inspect the artwork was their biggest concern, and while dealers are working hard to address this, the in-person experience is for many, still superior.
  3. Valuation and pricing: the art market’s move to online has forced many sellers to display prices or price ranges for their artworks, which is clear progress. Nearly all (93%) of the platforms covered in our research provide clear pricing and half provide prices of similar artworks sold on the platform. Some 54% would also display prices by comparable artists.
  4. Transaction: a seller’s approach to payment and returns can have a big impact on the purchase decision. Over half (56%) of art buyers have been deterred from shopping online because of a seller’s returns policy, yet our research reveals a variety of practices.
  5. Fulfilment: shipping is likely to become a battleground between online art platforms. Of hesitant online art buyers, 41% said that concerns around the cost and length of delivery time were key reasons for abandoning an online art purchase or not buying online at all, while 70% say free delivery would encourage them to transact. Despite this, only one in 10 of the online art platforms we looked at currently offer free shipping.

You can read the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report: Part Three, including key insights and our detailed look at the online customer journey by visiting: https://www.hiscox.co.uk/online-art-trade-report

Commenting on the report, Robert Read, Head of Fine Art at Hiscox said: “The appetite for buying art online increased considerably in 2020, but it’s still unclear whether the balance of power will be restored as the physical art world begins to reopen. In just 12 months the online sphere transformed from a niche to the new normal, but that digital revolution was brought about by a global pandemic and issues around trust, authenticity, transparency and logistics now threaten more permanent success.

“The impact of a global lockdown isn’t the only turbulence affecting the art world, as the digital market’s affair with non-fungible tokens continues to attract new money. No one quite knows what the market will look like when the physical side is fully back up and running but it’s likely to be different to anything we’ve witnessed in previous years”.

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