Amazon launches its Fine Art Marketplace: a revolution or an inevitable failure?

Tuesday Amazon has launched the Amazon Art Marketplace, giving users access to 40,000 pieces of fine art from over 150 American dealers and galleries. But it’s gold all that glitters?

The site offers over 40,000 original works of fine art, showcasing 4,500 artists ranging in price from a $10 screen print by the up-and-comer Ryan Humphrey to a  $4.85 million painting by Norman Rockwell. Works are classified by style, subject, opera category (paint, photo…) and price, as any other commodity in the site. There is also a controversial application that shows you how the picture would be in your living room.

Amazon has joined several well-established players in the online market, like Artsy, a high-end seller; Paddle8, an online auction site; Artnet, which is back in the business with auctions; and Artspace, which has partnerships with dozens of prestigious galleries and museums offering works from $100 prints to a $2.5 million Cy Twombly painting.

Holden Luntz of Holden Luntz Gallery said that the purchase of the works online could be used to reach new customers: perhaps those “afraid” of galleries, that would not have bought any picture – and perhaps would not even ever entered – in an art gallery.

Amazon has decided to be a showcase site, reproducing in some way the model that used for wine. But it is much more complicated selling art than selling wine: the prices are higher, they are unique pieces or limited edition (i.e. no feedback), and the lack of physical contact raises the suspicions of potential buyers.

But Amazon also has pricing problems. The art marketing expert Tyler Cowen has noted that the Warhols and Monets are overpriced and often aesthetically mediocre. He has also estimated that the cost of Amazon is 3 or 4 times higher than the previous transaction history of similar works. It looks like dealers are trying to unload unwanted, hard to sell, inventory at sucker prices. This makes very perplexed on the strategy that is taking Amazon to find new audiences.

It is expected that the real business will come on posters, lower quality lithographs, and screen prints, that are not exactly fine art. This already happens at Art.com, but it would be the end of the original idea.

Now. How can Amazon in this project exploit its strengths: logistics, long catalog and customer service? The art collectors will rely really on Amazon to complete their collections? The number of “gallery afraid” buyers will be sufficient to repay the investment? What can Amazon offer more than Art.com or than the simple eBay? And finally, is really the net the right way to evaluate a work of art?

Amazon’s last attempt at selling art was a project with Sotheby’s back in 2000, that lasted only 16 months. It’ll be interesting to see how the initiative works out now.

The project will be able to overcome the beta phase or it will be discreetly abandoned?