SEVEN years ago, a young East German who goes by the moniker Super Future Kid desperately wanted to make a living as an artist. While holding down a full-time job, she painted on weekends and posted images of her works on a new online gallery called Saatchi Online.
The website allows artists to display and sell their works directly to anyone around the world for a 30 per cent commission of the price of the work - lower than most brick-and-mortar galleries' standard commission of 50 per cent.
The going was slow at first, but as Super Future Kid began to put more images of her works online, a clear and obvious style emerged among them. Art lovers, chancing on her collection, enjoyed the quirky and candy-coloured combinations of iconic images juxtaposed in unexpected ways.
Momentum built and the till started ringing. Her average prices jumped from as low as US$400 two years ago to as high as US$5,200 today. Super Future Kid, as you might have guessed, now paints full-time and has a list of clients. She says she's not looking for a brick-and-mortar gallery to represent her: "I'm happy being an independent artist, and working at my own pace."
In a way, her miniature "Cinderella of art" story mirrors that of the online art retail scene today. Many art retail sites struggled in its early years to convince collectors to take them seriously. Some were dogged by technical issues, others simply lacked credibility - read: the art stank. Even the ones that were launched to much hype - such as VIP Art, touted in 2011 to be the first online art fair - failed to sell much art and had to be financially rescued.
Art e-tail competition gets fierce
But in recent years, more serious contenders started entering cyberspace. They boasted elegantly designed sites and bankable artists. Artspace, for instance, partners itself with more than 100 established galleries such as White Cube and David Zwirner to facilitate the sale of artworks by hot names such as Warhol, Katz, Rauschenberg and Ruscha. Like other leading sites, it doesn't just sell art - it educates art lovers with advice on collecting and art appreciation, and offers occasional deals and discounts.
Another website, Artnet, boasts a far wider reach with its partnership with 1,700 galleries. Calling itself a "market leader", Artnet auctioned off some US$15m worth of art last year - a significant figure considering that online art sales totalled US$870m in 2012, according to a report published by insurer Hiscox. Though that latter figure puts online art sales at less than 2 per cent of the US$56 billion global art market (excluding the auction houses' online bidding activities), that figure is expected to grow.
Saatchi Online, which showcases Super Future Kid's works, is an offshoot of the famous Saatchi Gallery started by Charles Saatchi. Since 2010, it has ramped up its activities in marketing and selling works by new, unknown artists. Rebecca Wilson, its chief curator, says with pride: "We now have tens of thousands on the site. Our sales have risen dramatically in the past two years and we've sold art to collectors in over 80 countries last year. Our aim is to democratise art by making it widely accessible to the people who want to buy it - people who may find going to the gallery an intimidating experience."
Recently, Internet giant Amazon became the latest to muscle in on the market, adding fine art to what it boastfully calls "earth's biggest selection" of consumables. So now you can add a US$175,000 genuine Picasso print to your Amazon shopping cart, next to your US$17.50 Stephen King hardcover. Rest assured the shipping, in this case, is free.
Despite the intensifying competition, some scepticism abounds: Can online galleries really convince buyers to buy expensive canvases or prints without seeing the artwork up close? Considering how Net-a-Porter, Asos and other clothing e-tailers have put paid to the notion that women won't buy anything without trying it on first, perhaps they can.
All of the previously mentioned sites are based in the US and Europe. Here in Singapore, the art e-tail scene is a fledgling one - with no more than five websites selling good contemporary art. Still, for lovers of local and Asian art, these websites are a godsend because it means being able to purchase art without making time to go to the gallery. On GiveArt.net, for instance, you can find a Jeremy Sharma canvas at $4,000 and a Genevieve Chua limited edition photograph for just $510 - both are attractive prices.
Local scene revs up
The latest Singapore site to make its entry into the scene is The Artling opened earlier this year by 28-year-old local entrepreneur Talenia Phua Gajardo. She says: "When I was studying in London, it was easy to purchase art online. But when I came back to Singapore two years ago, I realised there was a gap in the local market for these kinds of services, especially if you wanted to buy Asian art. So I started The Artling."
Though barely six months old, The Artling has already attracted a few well-known artists such as Albert Yonathan Setyawan, who's representing Indonesia at the Venice Biennale this year, as well as award-winning shutterbugs Darren Soh and Tay Kay Chin, to put their works up for sale. Ms Gajardo says she sells one work a week - "not bad, considering we haven't done any marketing for the site," she says.
"Art lovers these days don't just want to go the galleries and museums. They also want to browse art when they're home. And, if the prices aren't too steep, they don't mind whipping out their credit card, typing in the numbers and purchasing the work online without seeing it up close."
Olivier Henry agrees. The French photographer started Vue Privee in 2010, and it is now possibly the most established online art gallery in Singapore. It sells works by notable artists such as Singapore's Aiman and China's Kim Xu. And though it has a physical space in Spottiswoode Park which opens on weekdays by appointment only, much of its business is done online.
Henry says: "Most of our clients are in Europe, the US and the greater Asian region. Almost all purchase our works online without seeing the actual work up close.
"But we have a simple policy of, say, if they don't like the work once they receive it, they can return it or exchange it for something else. So they're assured of getting something they like."
Henry adds: "Our Singaporean clients, meanwhile, tend not to buy the work online. Since they can visit our gallery which opens over the weekends and by appointment on weekdays, they do. And then, they decide whether they want to get it."
Meanwhile, premier auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's have decided they couldn't just sit back and watch art e-tailers have all the fun - even if most art e-tailers sell prints instead of unique works.
Jonathan Stone, chairman and international head of Asian Art of Christie's auction house, says: "We had the first online sale of Asian art this summer and it was very successful. There is clearly a demand for online art sales.
"We will increase the number of online sales, because we sense they appeal to people who move around a lot and can't be tied to a specific time and auction. In fact, when we started, we thought we'd attract young people, but we found a whole spectrum of people who prefer to buy art online. Fifty per cent of the buyers are new buyers to Christie's. So we're very pleased with that fact."
There were six online sales by Christie's last year. This year, the figure will hit an impressive 40.
Mr Stone also does not think art buyers necessarily need to see the works before purchasing them. He explains: "Even in the old traditional auctions, people don't always see the property before they buy them. They might buy based on the image they see in the catalogue or the condition report by the auction house. So it's not revolutionary or new to see people buying art without viewing it in person."