Sotheby’s and Christie’s still lead as online art sales up 15% in 2016

25th April 2017

Buying art online is proving more popular than ever, with an increase of 15 per cent in 2016 compared to the year before. The global market for purchasing works on the internet reached $3.75bn (£2.93bn), but it is two familiar names that are continuing to flourish: Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Despite having their origins in bricks-and-mortar auction houses, these two businesses have embraced the digital marketplace and made it their own. This means they continue to do well when pitched against their digital-only rivals. The global art market is worth a massive $50bn, which in itself is up 7.4 per cent on 2015, and online sales now equate for 8.4 per cent of the whole.

The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2017 contains its own predictions for how the market will grow in the coming years. It suggests that in four years’ time, online sales of art – including paintings and sculptures – will reach $9.14bn.

Christie’s saw its online sales increase by 84 per cent in 2016, adding to the impressive total of three of the most well-known names in the business. Between them, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Heritage Auctions accounted for $720m of digital sales, showing a fascinating shift in the art-buying world.

Most of the art that is sold online is worth $5,000 a piece or less, with the lower end of the market being where the highest competition is found. This means that the majority of the world’s well-known artworks still go up for sale in real-life auction rooms.

Robert Read, head of art and private clients at Hiscox, said: “The online art market has continued to grow despite the backdrop of a slowing global art market. Established global brands such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s are starting to [get] to grips with the challenge of transforming a bricks-and-mortar business into a multimedia business.

“The dealers continue to struggle online; maybe they are making enough elsewhere. None of us know for sure in the gloriously-opaque art market, but my bet is that the temptation to bury your head in the sand when you are not tech-savvy is all too great.”

Having been established in London in 1744, Sotheby’s is the fourth oldest auction house in the world and now operates in 40 countries. Meanwhile, Christie’s, which is still going strong, was founded just 22 years later in 1766 and also in London. Heritage Auctions is a much more modern addition to the scene, having been started in 1976, but has become the biggest auctioneer of collectables on the planet.

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