Selling Art on the Internet

Q: Should I try to sell art over the Internet? I've seen several advertisements for fixed-price sites that specialize in selling antiques, collectibles and art. They put "for sale" pictures up along with contact information and charge very reasonable commissions. I've also visited online gallery sites that say they buy art. Some websites even let me advertise my art for free and charge only if I sell.

A: The Internet continues to be pretty much of a free-for-all as far as selling art goes. Unless you're on top of the current market, fully research your art and it's marketability (or better yet, get it appraised), and otherwise educate and prepare yourself before getting involved in online selling. In addition to knowing what your art is worth and how much you want to sell it for, you also have to be prepared to show it to interested parties, at first with good digital images, but once negotiations get serious, you'll likely have to ship it out on approval to potential buyers as well-- and here's the important part-- make sure you have adequate safeguards in place to get paid in full if the art either sells or anything unfortunate happens to it. This can be challenging when dealing with people who you've never met and who may live hundreds or even thousands of miles away, particularly if you have little or no experience selling online.

Unless you know who you're doing business with, the anonymous nature of Internet selling presents problems, especially in the areas of buying and selling art. For example, a small percentage of dealers and collectors spend their time searching the Internet for unsuspecting sellers who underprice their art (they love sellers who haven't done adequate price research or who think they can fish for fair offers from interested buyers). Some may also request detailed information about your art seemingly to help them decide whether or not to buy when what they really intend to do is offer it for sale elsewhere, all the while acting like they're the ones who really own it. Some don't even ask for details-- they take what they need from your public posting and offer it for sale like it's their own, occasionally even after the art is sold. You never know the difference unless some diligent dealer or collector spots the duplicate listings and notifies you about what's going on. Consequently, art can get pretty badly shopped around in cyberspace.

As for gallery websites that advertise as art buyers and sellers, pretty much all of the finest galleries and dealers in the world are now online. Unfortunately, some of the not-so-finest are also fully operational, the challenging part being able to tell who's who. The nature of the Internet is such that a lavish high-end website may be that of a four-story Manhattan gallery or it can be a cell phone sitting on a coffee table in someone's den. Telling the difference can be pretty daunting unless you know the art business, are familiar with the players and know the right questions to ask.

At this time, the safest Internet routes for buying and selling art at fixed-price venues are through established galleries and major online sites like Artnet or ArtPrice, and through members of established dealer associations like Art Dealers Association of America, Fine Art Dealers Association or the Private Art Dealers Association. Local or regional dealer or gallery associations in the area where you live may also be viable. Artbrokerage is a good secondary market option for private sellers who want to try selling direct as well, although they tend to specialize in more commercial art and artists.

Even in these cases, though, you have to be careful, request references, and preferably make personal contact, preferably by phone, before proceeding with any sales or consignment arrangements. If you decide to place your art up for sale as a private seller, pick a site that only takes a commission if the art sells, has a secure transaction system (or preferably does the transaction themselves), and verifies buyers before allowing transactions to be completed. Ideally, you want them to be responsible for collecting the money and paying you rather than you having to verify the seller, ship the art and collect the money yourself. If you have the experience and feel comfortable transaction a sale entirely on your own, you can often do so at a lower commission.

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