Amazon Art Struggles to Lure Collectors Online, As Expected (Right?)

Amazon Art listing for Jasper Johns's #1 from Six Lithographs (After Untitled 1975) (1976), priced at US$16,000.

Amazon Art listing for Jasper Johns's #1 from Six Lithographs (After Untitled 1975) (1976), priced at $16,000.

How is Amazon Art actually faring as it approaches eight months online and in business? A recent report from Bloomberg Businessweek suggests that some high-end dealers may be having difficulty finding buyers for big-ticket items listed on the online superstore, and that the e-retailer's detractors look down on its offerings as decorative objects rather than serious investments.

There are now 250 galleries offering about 55,000 artworks for sale on the website. Instead of a listing fee, Amazon takes an undisclosed percentage of the sale price on every work sold. For users, the interface couldn't be more intuitive, with one-stop shopping and a convenient "in room" display function that provides perspective by displaying the artwork to scale in a furnished room. Would-be collectors can browse listings by artist, price, size, subject, style, and color.

If you want a full array of Andy Warhol's Chairman Mao screenprints, Amazon has you covered: The iconic image is available in five different colors, for $200,000 a pop from Rudolf Budja Galerie. On the other end of the spectrum, a suite of kitten etchings by Christine McGinnis are going for just $20 each from Rodger LaPelle Galleries. Though it has plenty of variety, what Amazon lacks is any sort of curatorial oversight. There are no experts to help you wade through the thousands of listings to find a quality piece of art to fit your budget.

Amazon Art "In Room" rendering for Jasper Johns's #1 from Six Lithographs (After Untitled 1975) (1976).

Amazon Art "In Room" rendering for Jasper Johns's #1 from Six Lithographs (After Untitled 1975) (1976).

The site includes a link to a "Fine Art Buying Guide" on the main page, it only answers the most basic questions like "What is 'Fine Art'?" and "What is a 'collection' and how do I start one?" When asked if a user should limit purchases to works by famous artists, Amazon Art offers the following advice:

Buy art that you love! Whether it's from a famous or emerging artist, we think it's essential to love the art that you buy. Start your search by thinking about art that you feel a connection to, that you may have seen in a museum or a book. What is it that you love about that Picasso? Or a particular Renoir? Use those elements to help you search for an amazing work of art in your price range. Amazon Art offers works of art from well-known artists, but once you know what kind of work you like, that can lead you to discover new artists and mediums.

As the FAQ illustrates, blue-chip art still seems like a bit of an odd fit on a site that is known for offering incredibly low prices on more everyman-friendly products such as books, music, and household goods. The Amazon Art homepage prominently features a "Under $500" section that turns up an array of archival digital prints, photographs, paintings, and etchings, but current listings top out at $800,000.

Amazon is notorious for its users' snarky reviews of overpriced, obscure, or simply bizarre items (see the $45 gallon of Tuscan-brand whole milk, the "stunning screen print of 3 wolves howling at a moon on a preshrunk, 100% cotton tee," or the $40,000 85-inch LED television). Just as high-end collectors may flinch at buying art from a website that feels compelled to explain terms like "medium" and "style" to its customers, Amazon's longtime users are quick to ridicule what they see as outrageously high price tags in the "Fine Art" listings.

When Amazon Art launched last year, Art in America rounded up some sarcastic reviews of artworks priced at upwards of $1 million:

For as much as I paid I'm a little upset that this isn't a new painting. You can see OBVIOUS cracks and I'm worried that the artwork has had several owners before me.

What really sold me was the "in room" picture on this site, where it's next to a chair and side table. I couldn't quite picture it in my house, but after that imagery it was a no brainer. The best part is that since I'm a prime member, I saved about 20 bucks on shipping. I also purchased with my Amazon Visa rewards card (3 percent cash back on all Amazon purchases), so I got $75,000.00 back in rewards. Thinking about getting a BMW M3 or perhaps going to college with my cash back.

M.S. Rau Antiques has garnered similarly facetious remarks for Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Le portrait d'une jeune femme (1870), currently the site's most expensive offering:

I let my son use my laptop and he accidentally hit the one click order button for this painting! I tried to contact the seller before we were charged but it seemed to already have shipped. I already have the Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe by van Gogh on order and this one will clash with my tapestry! I guess I do need something for my bathroom or the attic, but it doesn't follow the flow of my decor at all!

Perhaps the flippant mood is deterring serious collectors from surfing Amazon Art. Los Angeles's Kenneth A. Friedman & Co., which is selling work by the likes of Chuck Close, Jim Dine, and William Wegman, told Businessweek it was an "uphill battle" just to sell one piece on the site, despite offering competitive prices and free shipping.

Amazon Art's list of categories, including "Under $500"

Amazon Art's list of categories, including "Under $500."

San Francisco's Elins/Eagles-Smith Gallery has yet to make a sale since listing with Amazon last summer. artnet News spoke to owner Mel Elins, who believes "it's too soon to say" if the venture will be a success. The gallery, which currently has works from Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso on offer, is considering branching out to less expensive, mid-career artists.

But is the problem just with Amazon? AXA Art's recent survey of 1,000 art collectors, as artnet News reported, found that while 95 percent of collectors view the Internet as an important resource for collecting, only 34 percent had actually made a purchase online. A full 42 percent of those surveyed said that, on principle, they would never buy art on the Internet. "I don't think it will ever take the place of the brick and mortar venue," said Elins. "Unless its a very known commodity, people want to see a work in person."

There are some advantages to the online art marketplace that may yet win over reluctant traditionalists, though. Rebecca Wilson, the recently appointed chief curator and director of artist development at online gallery Saatchi Art, sees plenty of growth potential in the industry. "We can give more opportunities to many more artists," she said in a telephone conversation with artnet News. Online art vendors can showcase promising young artists at a fraction of the cost of a traditional gallery show, Wilson pointed out.

As online sales become more common across a variety of industries, Wilson believes that more and more collectors are becoming comfortable with purchasing art from a website. "Our mission is to make the work on the site as accessible as possible." Saatchi Art does this by presenting 3 or 4 online exhibitions a week, each organized by theme, medium, or price. "They are curated with the same care and attention that I would give to any kind of show that I would be working on in a physical gallery," Wilson promises.

Amazon Art, for its part, may be suffering from the lack of a practiced curatorial eye such a Wilson's. Or, it could just be that when an errant click can send you to the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, it's hard to get in the right frame of mind to buy a $40,000 Albrecht Dürer woodcut engraving.