European auction houses are hoping online sales will solve the problems of low-priced art and antiques. Venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz call the solution a managed marketplace.This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
What We Really Mean When We Talk About ‘Online’ SalesThe Art Newspaper conducted a survey of European auction houses to learn what their plans for conducting online-only auctions are. Like many, TAN holds the conventional wisdom that ‘online’ is inevitable because of the broader retail trend away from physical presence. The problem is that art and cultural property don’t sell the way commodities do. That’s one reason Amazon and eBay haven’t been successful with art. It’s also the reason the top auction houses have taken a go-slow approach toward online recognizing the primacy of live auctions. They value of online sales as a customer acquisition tool more than a revenue booster. At its heart, the difference between selling commodities online—where price and convenience are the killer app—and getting cultural property to sell is that cultural property is demand dependent. No one needs a vintage handbag or a drawing. One buys these objects out of passion, a belief that owning them will confer status or a sense that they are gaining value over time. There’s an important discussion to be had about demand generation and whether that can be accomplished ‘online’ … yet. But let’s save that for another time. There’s a more pressing issue about what’s going on with art sales. You might remember the outcry that took place two years ago when Christie’s announced the shuttering of its South Kensington sale rooms which focused on the kinds of objects that were said to be disappearing from the art market, brown furniture and antiques. This cultural property of some but not great value seems to be falling out of favor and falling in value. Some watched the corporate move and ruefully admitted that the kind of material once sold in antiques shops was dwindling and the could never support the cost in personnel and infrastructure of selling them.
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