Amazon in the Art World

ARTINFO reports  that  “Christie's CEO Steven Murphy is not taking Amazon’s recent venture into the online art auction business lightly. When asked if he takes Amazon Art seriously, Murphy responded, "All these things worry me! I'm on the anxiety diet over here. Why shouldn't I take
Amazon going into the art business seriously? … But, I'll tell you, like the Wizard of Oz said, 'We have something they haven't got.' We have the Christie's brand.”
Murphy should take Amazon seriously because Amazon is not entering the fray lightly. Amazon’s screening process for potential dealers indicates that they are clearly looking for blue chip dealers that will be offering very good material. Amazon is certainly mindful of the demographics of their market which includes buyers that can't afford big ticket art objects. However, as a premier seller they under the publicity value and cache of selling top notch works.  But as ARTINFO points out below there will be problems along the way.
“When retail Goliath Amazon unveiled its virtual fine art store last week, the site drew a mixture of curious art aficionados and bemused onlookers who flocked there to see what was on offer. Among the most expensive pieces were works by household names like Norman Rockwell, whose painting, “Willie Gillis: Package from Home,” (1941), was $4.85 million, and Claude Monet, whose portrait of his son Jean was $1.45 million. Not too far down the list of priciest items, however, were a handful of sensuous portraits of women by a lesser-known Pennsylvania-based realist painter Nelson Shanks, ranging from a staggering $500,000 to upwards of $900,000. This seeming anomaly may be indicative of the types of challenges new or inexperienced buyers will face in endeavoring to make major art acquisitions from this expansive new superstore.
Who is Nelson Shanks? Can his works be worth a half million dollars on Amazon? He definitely does have a following: The painter currently has a solo show at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pa., entitled “Nelson Shanks: A Brush With Reality.” In 2011, he had solo shows in Russia — at St. Michael’s Castle (part of the Russian Museum) in St. Petersburg and at the Russian Academy of Arts, Moscow, including portraits of world-renowned figures including the late Pope John Paul II (2002), and Princess Diana (2010), as well as former U.S. president Bill Clinton (2005-6). According to the artist’s personal website, he is one of only two living American painters to have been invited to exhibit at either of these venues.
Still, while it is not unheard of for artists to have higher prices when works are sold privately versus at auction, the discrepancy between Shanks's known price history and the Amazon listings is considerable. Auction databases reveal that the highest price ever recorded for a Shanks painting is $7,475, including buyer's premium, set at Boston auction house Skinner in 1995.
Is some clever dealer trying to pull a fast one on Amazon's large audience? Steve Brennen, owner of S R Brennen Fine Art, which listed the works and has branches in Scottsdale, Santa Fe, and Palm Desert, claims that Shanks’s works commonly sell for six and seven figure prices privately, though his is among the few galleries that actually handles the artist’s work. He declined to say how many sales he negotiates each year on average, but there were about a half dozen paintings by him available in Amazon’s paintings section when it went live.
Soon after ARTINFO inquired about the works by Shanks on Amazon, however, the paintings vanished from the site. Brennen confirmed they were intentionally removed. Asked why they would appear and disappear so rapidly, Brennen explained that he had changed his mind about the potential for selling such high-value art online. “This is a brand new thing,” he told ARTINFO. “We were uncertain and joined the website dragging our feet. I think it’s extraordinarily premature to be selling high-quality fine art that way.”
Amazon spokesman Erik Fairleigh replied to the removal via email: “Galleries and dealers that list artwork on Amazon Art are the actual sellers and may update the artwork they post for sale at any time. We know from more than two million third-party sellers that sell across Amazon that some sellers update their listing daily or even several times a day. Ultimately, it will be up to the galleries and dealers to determine the artwork they choose to sell on Amazon.”
As of yesterday, another of the most high-profile items was also gone from the site: that pricey Monet portrait, the second-most-expensive work. That piece had been listed by New Orleans-based M S Rau Antiques, which is also behind the Amazon Rockwell. Gallery CEO William Rau, however, explained that this was because his gallery is working with somebody who has been interested in it for a while (i.e. before it was put in the Amazon store). (Although this revelation does raise the question of whether buyers who find high-end art on the site will just go outside of it to negotiate a better deal.)
In general, however, Rau sounded bullish about the prospects for sales through Amazon. He pointed out that in just two days, the Monet had 80,464 page views and the Rockwell had 46,421 page views. “On our gallery website we get maybe 3,000 hits a day,” and that’s for the entire inventory, as opposed to individual works for sale. Noting that Amazon has 100 million customers Rau says, “If you get one percent, that’s still 1 million potential customers. It’s simple math.”
He did, however, have a suggestion, relating to the tide of satircal “user reviews” of artworks that poured into the Monet's entry. “I had a whole bunch of thoughts,” said Rau. “Some of the comments were extraordinarily clever. I actually broke out in a chuckle when I read some of them. Others were extraordinarily naïve.”
Ultimately, that's one particular aspect of Amazon that might not make sense for fine art. “The reviewer comments only make sense for things that aren’t original art, like if you’re buying a pair of shoes,” he said.”
Again don’t underestimate Amazon and the direction the art market is taking to technology and online transactions.