Shane Ferro's Profile
Amazon’s puzzling new art venture
With price points below $100 and up to more than $4 million (but the majority of works priced between $1000 and $10,000), Amazon is solidly placing itself in the realm of startups like Artsy, Artspace, and Paddle8, in inventory if not in aesthetics or art world pretension.
That said, Amazon doesn’t seem to really be trying to to break into the art world. The better name for it is perhaps Amazon Decorator. Tyler Cowen writes that Amazon will not “revolutionize the art world”, and that for most of the inventory over $10,000, “it looks like dealers trying to unload unwanted, hard to sell inventory at sucker prices”. However, works at lower prices might sell:
I expect the real business here to come in posters, lower quality lithographs, and screen prints, not fine art per se. And sold on a commodity basis. There is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think it will amount to much more aesthetic importance than say Amazon selling tennis balls or lawnmowers.
On the other side of things, art writers are utterly baffled. Collector and blogger Greg Allen tweeted “utterly stymied by Amazon Art. Style/Subject/Price/Size/Orientation? These filters have nothing to do with how I look for and buy art. ZERO”. Jillian Steinhauer, who was the first to break the news about Amazon Art back in May, writes in Hyperallergic:
It looks like it was made by people with zero knowledge of art. They pretty much just slapped the Amazon template on there, thinking one size fits all. But it doesn’t. Pages like this one, for a work by Mary Cassatt, bring up multiple issues, including the lack of biographical info for some artists (maybe we don’t need to know every artist’s biography, but I think Mary Cassatt deserves better) and the question of who — if anyone — is handling quality control. Is that piece actually a lithograph, or is a it an aquatint?
Amazon certainly lacks the crisp, collecting-focused editorial of other art sales sites. It doesn’t really have any features that might entice one to make a big purchase. What it does have is thousands of options, the familiarity of Amazon browsing, and (theoretically) an audience of 80 million visitors a month. Matt Yglesias suggests Amazon could find a niche “selling stuff that art snobs would look down on to people who art snobs would look down on”.
The online auction house Paddle8 is on Amazon selling lower-end prints for its non-profit and institutional partners. “Many of these editions fall into the decorating space and not really art collecting”, Paddle8 co-founder Aditya Julka tells me.
Julka explains that the institutions Paddle8 works with in their online auctions come to the company looking for a way to offload extra inventory — generally prints that cost less than $5,000. Paddle8 doesn’t want to sell that work on its own site (“We didn’t want to be distracted” from the auction house business, says Julka), so it is finding other retail sites where it can list the work to keep its clients happy. Despite its shortcomings, Amazon’s traffic is hard to beat.
But, even with such high traffic, will people be willing to spend what may seem like peanuts in the art world, but is still a hefty sum for commoditized art prints? It has never worked before. Ebay’s art sales have never really taken off, largely because of authenticity issues. Amazon’s first attempt at selling art online — a partnership with Sotheby’s in 2000 — lasted little more than a year. Beloved, low-cost art print site 20×200 shut down abruptly earlier this year.
There are plenty of sites that claim to be making online art sales work, but they are all on the other end of the spectrum: mostly doing auctions supplemented by art world specialists and fancy events held around the world. Since most of the non-auction competition are VC-backed startups, it’s hard to tell what’s happening behind the scenes until they either make it or go bust.
One of these shiny new sites, suggests Lydia DePillis, might just be what Amazon needs to make its offerings palatable to decorators and collectors alike — and finally make art work online:
Amazon may end up buying Artsy for its commenting platform and its “genome” tool for categorizing different works, just like it bought Goodreads for a center of chatter around the things it sells. Which might mean you can have your gigantic, relatively transparent, consolidated art market — and your cozy community as well.
If that doesn’t happen, at least the reviews are amusing.