Art Market

Online Art Collectors Look More Like Traditional Collectors than You Think

Alexander Forbes
Sep 23, 2019 5:35PM

To download a PDF of the complete report, click here.

The art industry is at a crossroads. Never before have more people been engaged with art, thanks to the rise of digital channels and social media. Yet the market has largely stagnated over the past decade, and the number of artworks trading hands has decreased. As value has concentrated at the top of the market and costs have risen, galleries and auction houses are looking for new ways to ensure their businesses survive and thrive, to support artists, and to help connect collectors with artworks they love.

Many common business practices in the art industry are being questioned. Do galleries need a permanent physical location to hold their exhibitions? Does an auction house need a live auctioneer in a physical salesroom to sell high-value works? Business-savvy leaders across the industry are undertaking nuanced analyses of how many art fairs their gallery should participate in, what categories their auction house has the best opportunity to win within, what the evolving needs of their collectors are, and how to best take advantage of new sales channels as they develop.

Among those new channels, online sales have been key areas of focus for many actors across the industry who are aiming to grow their businesses. At Artsy, we’ve seen 58% year-over-year growth in the volume of sales on the platform from our 3,000+ gallery and auction house partners. Meanwhile, industry leaders like Gagosian, David Zwirner, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips have all meaningfully increased their investments online.

A core driver of this investment—from the industry’s titans all the way down to the newest gallery to join Artsy—is a need to connect with and cultivate new collectors. But who are these online art collectors, and how can the industry better serve them? To try to answer these questions, we surveyed nearly 1 million active Artsy users and received 5,807 responses, including 3,993 from individuals who collect art. In many ways, the results shatter the perception that individuals who buy art online are some drastically new breed of collector—dorm-room billionaires or flippers speculating on contemporary art’s next market darling. By and large, they look like the passionate, art-obsessed collectors that the art world already knows well offline.

However, there are ways in which online art collectors’ preferences and needs differ from the traditional perceptions of people who buy art offline. These digitally savvy collectors have grown accustomed to immediate access to information on the internet, are frequently inclined to undertake independent research, and are more likely to contact a gallery or auction house only after gaining confidence in the artwork they would like to buy and the artist who created it.

Some online art collectors have been in the market for over 20 years and have migrated a portion of their annual acquisitions to online channels, but the majority of online collectors are much newer to the market. Those with the least experience often said they find the offline art world intimidating, and have gravitated online as a result.

Collectors who transact online want public access to artwork prices and desire accurate estimates and price comparisons in order to get comfortable stretching their budget to buy a work that may be at the higher end of what they can afford. They expect from the art world the same speed and professionalism they’ve become used to from the new cadre of digital-first brands that have gained their trust.

This report unpacks these similarities and differences, and lays out several ways the art industry can evolve to better serve the next generation of collectors. At Artsy, we are not unbiased bystanders in creating a better digital ecosystem for galleries, auction houses, and their customers. But it’s important to note that while the collectors represented in this report conduct a portion of their transactions online, they’re just as likely to transact offline.

By better understanding and supporting these online art collectors at every step of their journey, we will benefit not only the online art market, but the overall health of the art market, as well—and provide more opportunities for artists.

Key findings

  • The majority of online art buyers spend under $5,000 on 1–2 pieces of art each year. However, the majority of respondents’ budgets were equal to or marginally higher than those reported in other leading surveys of collector behavior, debunking a common perception that online art collectors are lower spenders compared to the collecting population as a whole.
  • Collectors reported purchasing an average of 8 artworks annually—a higher value than reported in other surveys, and one highly correlated with budget. This suggests that online art collectors may be more likely than art collectors as a whole to increase the volume of their purchases as they increase their expenditure on art, rather than buying the same number of artworks at higher price points.
  • Nearly two-thirds of collectors (64%) reported that they had purchased art online in the past, a figure on par with broader estimates of the penetration of e-commerce among internet users. Twenty-one percent of online buyers reported that they spend 75% or more of their annual art budget online; 15.3% reported spending 50–74% of their budget online.
  • Total spending has remained roughly flat among online art buyers over the past 3 years. However, one-third of buyers have increased the portion of their budget that transacts through online channels.
  • More than 50% of buyers have been collecting for fewer than 10 years, and 32% are under 35 years of age. However, collectors aged 35–44 are more likely to have purchased art online, complicating the notion that online sales are most effective in targeting the art market’s youngest collectors.
  • Passion is the most important driver for art collectors. Factors like an artwork’s aesthetic qualities, the story behind it, and its ability to inspire the collector all significantly outranked investment and socially motivated factors, such as which gallery is selling the work.
  • Men and women expressed several key differences in their motivations to collect. Among them: Women were 24% more likely than men to be motivated by wanting to support artists, while men were 39% more likely to buy art as an investment.
  • Thirty-five percent of online art collectors said they buy art as an investment. However, only 26% reported doing so while hoping the work will appreciate in value.
  • Some of the most significant motivators for buying art online that collectors cited were speed and convenience; competitive pricing; access to inventory and information; and the ability to avoid the intimidation of the art world.
  • Public access to artworks’ prices was the most significant hindrance to buying more art that collectors reported.

Click here to read the rest of the report and for notes on the demographics and methodology of Artsy’s survey of online art collectors.

Alexander Forbes
Alexander Forbes is Artsy’s Senior Director of Collector Services & Private Sales.