Online art auction houses get physical: Is Internet model failing?

CONTEMPORARY ART INDIAN ART ONLINE AUCTION

Online auction house Saffronart recently opened a new gallery space in New Delhi, bringing its number of such spaces to three. The company’s online model has been so successful that it has been the subject of a Harvard case study. So why does Saffronart see a need for a physical presence?

Artnet homepage (screen capture). Image from artnet.com.

Artnet homepage (screen capture). Image from artnet.com.

We asked Saffronart and international auction house Artnet, who exhibited for the first time at the Hong Kong International Arts and Antiques Fair in 2010, to comment on this return physical exhibition spaces.

Improved access to local art communities

Saffronart currently holds the title of the world’s largest online auction house. They specialise in sales of contemporary Indian art but also sell jewellery and, most recently, real estate. Despite the clear success of this online venture, the organisation recently expanded their number of physical exhibition spaces to three, with a show of work by V.S. Gaitonde inaugurating their gallery in New Delhi, India. Does this opening point to the importance of physical contact with local art communities? Is this something that online ventures struggle to provide?

V.S. Gaitonde, 'Untitled', 1982, oil on canvas, 142.2 x 99.1 cm. Image courtesy Saffronart.

Dinesh Vazirani, CEO and co-founder of Saffronart, spoke with Art Radar, stating that the new space “provides a venue to exhibit artworks by leading modern and contemporary Indian artists for auction or exhibition.” Vazirani explained how New Dehli, the location for the new Oberoi Hotel gallery space, has seen an “expansion of galleries, museums, a spate of exhibitions and art events” and related this to Delhi’s “strong art fraternity.” To this, he added that “Saffronart is pleased to have a concrete presence here to contribute to this dynamic community.”

Interior view, Saffronart's New Delhi gallery. Image courtesy Saffronart.

Interior view, Saffronart's New Delhi gallery. Image courtesy Saffronart.

Strong trend towards online buying

While Vazirani noted that “there has been a shift towards greater comfort with viewing, evaluating and purchasing art online and on mobile devices,” he was careful to highlight the lasting importance of face-to-face interaction with significant clients, particularly when high value items were concerned. “Broadly speaking,” he elaborated, “the better known the artist and the more experienced the collector, the greater comfort there is when buying online.” Western consumers, said Vazirani, are generally more familiar with online purchasing than their customers in India, though the gap is closing rapidly: “Our biggest collectors are based in India and comfortable with viewing and purchasing online.”

“The beauty of our model is to be able to combine this personal interaction with the broach reach of the Internet,” Vazirani said, explaining how the widened access to artwork granted to clients and collectors as a result of Saffronart’s online focus can be combined with the personal interaction that the four Saffronart offices allow and physical exhibition spaces allow.

CEO and co-founder of Saffronart, Dinesh Vazerani. Image courtesy Saffronart.

CEO and co-founder of Saffronart, Dinesh Vazirani. Image courtesy Saffronart.

Online selling way forward for Artnet

In comparison, international online auction house Artnet told us they still place heavy emphasis on their online presence. They did, however, take a booth for the first time at Hong Kong International Art and Antiques Fair in 2010, where Art Radar Asia spoke to Max Wolf, Modern and Contemporary Specialist for Artnet. Wolf explained that the company’s focus at the fair was on creating and maintaining relationships with collectors or dealers who were not selling their work online. Is Artnet mirroring Saffronart’s move into the physical?

When we spoke with Robin Roche, director of Artnet’s online auctions, she emphasised the importance of the company’s online focus, stating that “while we did have a booth in 2010 in Hong Kong, we don’t place a priority on doing physical exhibitions.” She continues,

We do not physically exhibit the art that we offer online, nor do we see a need to. … We fully believe that the art market is moving away from physical viewings. We have seen this for years at the brick-and-mortar auction houses, where most of the bidding happens on the phones with clients that often have not seen the works. And the lack of physical exhibition certainly has not been a hindrance on our site, where each month we see our strength in the market grow.

Artnet homepage (screen capture). Image from artnet.com.

Artnet homepage (screen capture). Image from artnet.com.

Physical link still has value

For now, particularly when it comes to sales of contemporary art in emerging markets, it seems that a physical link to the art community and to collectors still has it place. As Dinesh Vazirani said when interviewed,

We think online is the direction things will go in over the medium to long term. In the short therm, we still see value in having a physical presence.

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