Amazon should let eBay handle the online market for fine art

August 7, 2013
August 7, 2013

I do not think it will revolutionize the art world:

Amazon has just announced that it’s partnered up with over 150 galleries and art dealers across the US to sell you fine art through its new initiative Amazon Art.

The site offers over 40,000 original works of fine art, showcasing 4,500 artists. That, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes it the largest online collection of art directly available from galleries and dealers. Partners in the project include Paddle8 in New York, the McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco, and the Catherine Person Gallery in Seattle.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon—which will reportedly take a 5 to 20 percent cut on all sales—was planning to launch the new service. At the time, it seemed that plenty of galleries thought that selling art online via Amazon may be distasteful. Clearly, that negative feeling hasn’t stopped Bezos & Co..

Given Amazon’s last attempt at selling art—a project with Sotheby’s back in 2000—only lasted 16 months, it’ll be interesting to see how the initiative works out.

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.

Should you buy this mediocre Mary Cassatt lithograph for “Price: $185,000.00 + $4.49 shipping”? (Jeff, is WaPo charging you $250 million plus $4.49 shipping? I don’t think so.)

One enduring feature of the art world is that a given piece will sell for much more in one context than another. The same painting that might sell for 5k from a lower tier dealer won’t command more than 2k on eBay, if that. Yet it could sell for 10k, as a bargain item, relatively speaking, if it ended up in the right NYC gallery (which it probably wouldn’t). Where does Amazon stand in this hierarchy? It doesn’t look promising.

Their Warhols are weak and overpriced, even if you like Warhol. Are they so sure that this rather grisly Monet is actually the real thing? I say the reviews of that item get it right. At least the shipping is free and you can leave feedback.

I’ve browsed the “above 10k” category and virtually all of it seems a) aesthetically absymal and b) drastically overpriced. It looks like dealers trying to unload unwanted, hard to sell inventory at sucker prices. I’m guessing that many of these are being sold at multiples of three or four over auction price histories. Is this unexceptional John Frost worth even a third of the 150k asking price?  Maybe not.

Amazon wouldn’t sell you a kitchen blender that doesn’t work, or that was triple the appropriate cost, so why should they sully their good name by hawking art purchase mistakes? If you’ve built the best web site in the history of the world, which they have, you may decide that quality control should not be tossed out the window. Much as I admire their shipping practices, what makes Amazon work for me is simply that they sell better stuff and a wider variety at cheaper prices. Why give that formula up by treading into a market where such an approach won’t make any money? Why compete in a market where an awesomely speedy physical delivery network means next to nothing?

Overall, I don’t see the advantage of Amazon over eBay in this market segment. One nice thing about eBay is that you can see if anyone else is bidding and also that surprise quality items pop up on a relatively frequent basis, due to a fully decentralized supply network. You also can hope for extreme bargains and indeed I have snagged a few in my time. On the new Amazon project, supply is restricted to a relatively small number of bogus, mainstream galleries, about 150 of them according to the publicity.

eBay has the advantage with “free for all,” and good galleries and auction houses have the advantage when it comes to certification and pricing reliability. I don’t see the intermediate niche that Amazon is supposed to be trying to fill.

I’m a big fan of Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post, but if you’re looking for the case against that move, just click on that Monet purchase and see what happens.

This originally appeared on Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution. It has been reprinted with permission. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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