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Will the Internet substitute real world art sales?
With a new dynamic and innovative art project, Google now lets viewers world over select leading museums (Alte Nationalgalerie, Germany; MoMA, USA; Museo Reina Sofia, Spain; Museum Kampa, Czech Republic; National Gallery, UK; Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands; Tate Britain, Uffizi Gallery, Italy, to name a few). The art lovers can explore the works as well as create and share their customized collections. For Manik Gupta, product manager (maps & local) of Google India, it’s in this mix of Street View with exquisite gigapixel image capture that the project excels. While the online foray cannot be a substitute for the real experience of visiting these historic venues, there’s something noteworthy about grasping the coded secrets of top artists, up close on the Art Project.

Another example of a marriage between art and technology was the recent VIP (Viewing in Private) Art Fair. An ambitious art dealer duo of James and Jane Cohan in New York teamed up with two visionary internet entrepreneurs to host it exclusively in the virtual realm. The event featured the best of works by several international artists from over 130 galleries. Compared to booth rentals of $10,500- $65,000 at Art Basel Miami Beach, they paid just about $5,000- $20,000 for virtual booths. A personalized tour let visitors customize their showcase of works. New Delhi’s Nature Morte and Mumbai based Chemould Prescott Road participated in the fair. Shireen Gandhy of Chemould was quoted as saying, “I hadn’t heard of the concept before, but looking at the participant galleries, you can feel it’s a sound idea with a definitive vision.”

According to curator-writer, Sharmistha Ray, recreating such an event in the virtual space is a massive statement for the domain of art. An increasing number of people now manage their bank accounts, book a holiday, buy books, select clothes, and pick electronic goods online. But then what about art? The UK Financial Times essayist Georgina Adam mentions: “Until now, apart from a few highly publicized sales, the business of high-priced art has remained largely in the ‘real’ world. However, many feel it’s just a matter of time before collectors will buy it more vigorously on the Internet. This is not to assume that auction houses and dealers don’t use technology. You can already bid and buy in many online auctions. Dealers now directly sell an increasing amount to clients through their sites.”

Many new initiatives popped up as part of the internet bubble during the mid 1990’s. Market players scrambled to launch start-ups in the art & culture space. Auction houses poured money into websites at the height of the frenzy. But the bubble soon burst. Many online ventures launched in a hurry wound up or only barely survived. Obviously, the technology was not foolproof, a decade ago. Image resolution was poor. Users were not at ease with the internet. Now a whole new generation of tech-savvy buyers is out there. So will the Internet ultimately take over from real world sales? Will it fundamentally change the way art world deals? Renowned business publication The Economist notes: “Auction houses and dealers have approached it warily. In 2006 Christie’s launched an online bidding system, whereas Sotheby’s launched BidNow only last year after its two earlier forays into online auctions failed at the beginning of the last decade.”

The Dallas-based Heritage Auctions with $650m worth of annual sales claims that nearly 34 percent are happen online. Christie’s sold roughly $114m worth of art & antiques online, totaling 16% of its lots that represented 3% of total sales. According to the world’s leading fine art auctioneer, online bidding for now is just one of the platforms on offer. Eventually, they will be form a major part of their business once the technology gets more refined and transactions are more secured. The trend is indeed significant, as Kelly Crow and Ellen Gamerman of The Wall Street Journal note, “The need to quickly access collectors around the globe has never been greater as more and more powerful art buyers emerge from Asia, Russia and the Middle East. Dealers are keen to reach a younger generation looking to explore the art market.”

Increasingly over the last decade or so, the art world has expanded globally with major events occurring around the world. Investors and collectors often find it unviable to personally visit each venue. And for those not wanting to miss out yet, the Internet has emerged as a perfect alternative. Investors seem more prepared than ever to spend big sums for buying art online. They are tempted by the thought of not having to rush through a sprawling art fair or personally visiting a gallery. Even those averse to buying without personally inspecting a work first, are joining a new wave of digital art ventures. One clear advantage of digital offering is that it can draw new potential buyers. For example, over half of Christie’s online bidders in 2010 had never registered for any of its auctions before.

A recent survey by EBay, a leading online shopping site with 2.5 million registered users across India, underlines that it’s not just urban centers but also rural hubs of the country that are joining the online rush. Against this backdrop, gallery owners and dealers realize the need to create a niche space online. It’s an economically viable option. In fact, the recession could be considered as a blessing of sorts for the new-age breed of online art-entrepreneur.

Pushing beyond the physical space, exclusive online galleries are now exposing contemporary Indian art to a wider base of buyers globally. There are skeptics though, who think that even 3D image technology cannot replace physical contact with art. Selling art is essentially a ‘high-touch’ business, depending on knowing whom you’re selling to, especially at the top end. In effect, the fundamental issue for online art sales is the comfort level of users with buying something they haven’t actually seen or touched. Pointing to the dilemma or dichotomy, Sharmistha Ray states, “We want to hold onto the physicality of the art object in an age when many people are keen to buy high-value pieces (online) by merely looking at illustrative images on their computer screens.”

The internet is a new emerging platform, but it’s still not in a position to compete with major fairs or with the aura of an evening auction. Yet, viewing, buying and selling of art is going online - slowly but surely. Many private equity investors and market players see it as a logical step ahead in an increasingly global world of art. No surprise, some of the biggest players in the domains of art and technology are betting that collectors will spend millions on buying works online in the near future.