A term most of us are fairly familiar with. It has been the buzzword over the past few years, what with technology coming to thoroughly transform our approach to traditional daily activities. We Uber, Amazon and Airbnb without blinking.
The global art market is a thickly opaque environment and it would, on paper, be the perfect candidate to be disrupted. And expectedly, there has been interest. Art startups globally, have on a regular basis, been collectively clocking in excess of $1 billion in funding year on-year. Last year, the online art resource, Artsy, individually raised $50 million.
Have we witnessed radical changes in the market on the back of those billions? Despite hearing the term “blockchain” being dropped on more than few instances at every glitzy art event I attend, my answer is, “Not quite”. Rather than radically transforming the eco-system, art startups have played a crucial role in stabilising and strengthening the foundation. In the general context, technology and its multifarious applications have led us along the expected path: making available and extending the reach of content. This content could be either material for sale, or market knowledge and news matter. Easy access to both have contributed significantly towards the further widening of the market.
Technology has predictably permeated into all spheres within the business, particularly in the direction of e-commerce and facilitating the extensive growth of sales channels. Despite the predictable challenges with the proposition of selling artworks online, there has been a fairly steady tide of purchase activity, that to a great measure supports the investment and effort required to build and market digital enterprise. Even heritage establishments like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, both auction houses that are over 250 years old, introduced alongside their traditional Evening and Day sales, a series of online auctions, in order to widen their digital footprint and connect with a younger bracket of collectors — a move that has served both extremely well. According to the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2017, Sotheby’s recorded $155 million while Christie’s managed $217million from these online sales in 2016, up by 15% and 34% respectively from the preceding year. Within India, according to the Artery India 2018 Market Report, online auction sales recorded ₹220 crore in 2017, up from ₹137.6 crores over the previous year.
Not all the billions invested have paid out and there have been some monumental slips as well. Consider Auctionata, an online auctioneer based in Germany that posted a revenue of $150 million in 2015 before becoming insolvent in 2017, though this is identical to the implosions recorded throughout e-commerce channels spanning the digital arena.
Has this tech shake-up within the art market been beneficial for its key players? It certainly has, with the most enduring benefit playing in favour of the collector — allowing for their networking and investing with sufficient ease. Its immediate facilitation of information — market news and developments, histories and critique, with perhaps the most vital contribution being within the direction of artist discovery, has aided the buyer immensely. A potentially strong collection can now be built and managed with little beyond clicking a few keys, as long as driven by a prudent, well-informed individual.
For the collector’s benefit, there is also a higher level of transparency that is now an expected and essential part of the buying equation, particularly in regard with the pricing of artworks, a conventionally opaque factor. In the simplest order, with the works of an artist being available on various websites, price comparison and discovery becomes a lot simpler. For collectors and investors interested in more precise market intelligence, performance data and indices, there are various specialist databases such as Artnet and Artprice internationally, and my firm Artery India, within our geography, that fulfil this requirement.
The equally powerful parallel that technology has enabled for a collector, and particularly the entrant and mid-level buyer is market and artist discovery. The ease of navigating through hundreds of images, with minimal physical effort is nothing short of remarkable, certainly resulting in thousands of transactions over the past decade.
In regard to the tribe of sellers, there have been instances of gallerists selling out exhibitions with little activation beyond images being uploaded on Instagram. Nearly every important living collector on this globe has a social presence of some nature, and connecting with them has genuinely never been simpler. I cant think of any mainstream entity in the art sales business that does not have a digital team, usually resident, to manage their presence online. As an extension, artists, in particular those who self-represent their work, have discovered an active slice of young professionals and early-stage collectors who wish to buy directly from them.
While disruption is still awaited, art-tech’s impact and repercussions have largely been for the vast improvement of the industry. There are still gaping gaps, (and therein, opportunities) in various departments, but on the whole, everyone employing it intelligently is smiling.
(The writer is the CEO of Artery India, a financial data centre focused on Indian art sales globally)
First Published: Aug 10, 2018 14:23 IST