Selling art online
The internet giant's fine-art venture is unlikely to sell many masterpieces
WITH a mouse click you can add Norman Rockwell's Willie Gillis: Package from Home to your Amazon shopping cart.
But you will need boldness and a bulging bank account to proceed to checkout: it costs 4.85m.
The oil painting went on sale in August, when Amazon splashily announced that it would add fine art to earth's biggest selection of consumables.
But it will not be easy to sell art alongside books and barbecues.
Amazon's arty initiative is not revolutionary.
Hundreds of dealers already sell art online, swarming into every niche and bristling with gimmicks.
Sedition sells digital works, some by famous artists.
Artsy figures out buyers' tastes from their browsing activity.
Artnet, the self-proclaimed market leader, auctioned 15m-worth of art last year and provides online exhibition space to 1,700 galleries.
Christie's and Sotheby's, the best-known auction houses, have long accepted online bids as an extension of their traditional sales.
So far, all this has made little impression.
Online art sales were 870m in 2012, less than 2% of the 56 billion global art market, according to a report published by Hiscox, an insurer.
Assuming that art will progress online at the same rate as luxury goods, the report predicts that sales will more than double to 2.1 billion by 2017.
Even then, online's share will still be modest.
Pure online art sales, in which anyone can buy and deals are struck on a website, happen mainly on the blurry boundaries between art, craft and mass production.
Jonas Almgren, the boss of London-based Artfinder, sees his site as a painterly version of Etsy, a successful American portal for selling handmade wares.
Both cater to a popular craving for one-of-a-kind goods.
Artspace sells mainly limited-edition prints and photographs.
The lower end of the art market will largely shift online, predicts Skate's, an art-market research firm.
Higher up, things get more complicated.
Artists yearn to exhibit in real galleries; collectors want to experience first-hand a work's scale and texture.
In the secondary market the spectre of forgery makes them wary of dealing with virtual vendors.
When the price of an artwork tops 5,000, you want a relationship with a client, says Steve Lazarides, a specialist in urban art who runs both physical galleries and an online shop.
The priciest bargains are struck between dealers and coteries of collectors they know well.
The terms are almost always secret.
With living artists, relationships matter even more.
Dealers are expected to nurture their careers, which means managing prices, too.
It is an unwritten law that they must never fall, says Friederike Hauffe, who teaches a course in art marketing atBerlin's Free University.
Some dealers discourage collectors from selling the work of an artist they represent; if one comes up for auction they might bid up prices. To fail to sell an item at auction is to burn it.
That does not mean that online marketing plays no role at the top end.
Swanky galleries have long e-mailed images to potential buyers.
Many exhibit art online to attract global interest but conduct transactions in cosier settings.
Nearly four-fifths of galleries insist on some direct contact with buyers, according to the Hiscox report.
Most online sales above 100,000 happen via the electronic bidding channels of auction houses such as Christie's.
But this may be changing. The prices collectors are willing to pay online are creeping up.
Friendships with dealers are beginning to seem less vital.
Christie's launched online-only sales in 2011 with an auction of Elizabeth Taylor memorabilia.
Saatchi Online thrusts itself into the heart of the new-art nexus: it represents artists directly, bypassing galleries, and is happy to sell to all kinds of people, says its chief curator, Rebecca Wilson.
Amazon is not in the business of managing artists' careers. You can buy a Jeff Koons print on the site for 33,750 but are unlikely to find his giant steel Tulips.
Mr Almgren thinks Amazon will struggle to sell even more modest works.
There is an enormous mismatch between Amazon's utilitarian website and the inspirational approach you need to sell art, he thinks.
Perhaps that is why, as late as September 18th, Willie Gillis was still for sale.
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