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August 27, 2014updated 11 Jan 2016 2:52pm

Sotheby’s and eBay partnership signals booming online art market

By Spear's

When we think of art, what comes to mind? Monet’s spectacular water lilies? Michelangelo’s heroic David?

With David Hockney’s celebrated foray into iPad art and the ongoing success of the Art Everywhere movement, where digital works of art have been projected onto stations across the UK, the days of the artistic supremacy of paint and canvas, marble and bronze are clearly numbered.

Technology is providing the art world with new tools for expression, with more and more artists pushing the boundaries of art, looking outside of what is perceived as “traditional” to incorporate other aspects into their work.

And it is not only the creative process that has been affected by the influence of technology. The manner in which art is produced, distributed, promoted, conserved and supported has also shifted as a reaction to the world’s transition into a socially-connected digital society. The internet makes art easier to share, drawing it out of galleries into the wider public sphere.

In a further move towards bringing fine art to the masses, Sotheby’s and eBay have recently announced a partnership that will enable collectors to bid on world-class art from the comfort of their own home or on the go with their smartphones.

Starting this autumn, most of Sotheby’s New York auctions will be broadcast live on a new section of eBay’s website. Eventually, the auction house hopes to extend the partnership, adding online-only sales and streamed auctions taking place anywhere from Hong Kong to Paris to London.

The pairing of the prestigious auction house and the internet shopping giant beloved of bargain-hunters has surprised many, with fine art purists displaying a wary scepticism towards the use of e-commerce in the art world. This scepticism is somewhat corroborated by the 2003 abandonment of a previous partnership between the two companies with the admission that there were simply not enough people willing to buy art online.

However, a decade later, the online art market is booming. In 2013, online bidders competed for 17% of the lots offered by Sotheby’s, with the total number of lots bought online rising 36% from the previous year. In April, Sotheby’s sold ‘The Birds of America’, a JohnJames Audubon folio for $3.5 million, a record for an online purchase in a live auction.

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For many, online buying has become second nature, with customers increasingly willing to spend large sums over the internet without having seen an item in person. It is access to this enormous market of tech-savvy buyers – eBay has 145 million users – that Sotheby’s hopes to tap into with this pairing.

The pairing of Sotheby’s and eBay appears to signal a shift in the somewhat rarefied world of art and antiques, opening the enjoyment and possession of fine art up to the masses. Only time will tell whether the venture will succeed. However, with the growing dominance of online consumerism, this pairing could be a further step in resigning the bang of the gavel to a thing of the past.

Hannah Blakey works at boutique private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP

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