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Amazon nearly destroyed local bookstores. It may do the same with online art sites.

A $4.85 million Norman Rockwell, in one click! Gallery: Art available on Amazon

Yesterday, expanded into yet another market (no, not newspapers): art. After a few months of courting gallerists, the Amazon Art marketplace launched with more than 40,000 works, a few of which aren't coming from the bargain basement: a $1.45 million Monet, for example, and Norman Rockwell's "Willie Gillis: Package From Home" for $4.85 million. All in one click, with free shipping!

The seller of both those pieces is New Orleans-based M.S. Rau Antiques, which says it's the largest art retailer in North America. It has its very own online catalogue, and as much name recognition as you get in the world of fine collectibles. So why join the Amazon marketplace, when it takes a commission of between 5 and 20 percent on each sale? Can they charge more to make up for it?

"A lot of our pieces have slight wiggle room in them," says owner Bill Rau. "All that means is that they'll be a little bit less. American Express charges 3 percent today, so let's face it, there's a savings right there." 

Talking to Rau, it becomes clear that Amazon doesn't threaten brick and mortar galleries — all of which can also drive sales on the site — as much as it does the smaller online art marketplaces, like Artsy, Artnet and Artquid. Having a gigantic reach makes an online sales platform much more valuable.

"They sort of stand above anybody," Rau says. "There's a number of well-designed places, but it's the newspaper equivalent of The Washington Post. These other guys have a neighborhood pamphlet that they put out in a grocery store."

Sure, a gallery might be represented on another site as well. But if it's getting most of its sales through Amazon anyway, it might figure it's just not worth the trouble — and if Amazon wants to compete even more ruthlessly, it can lower its commissions (Artnet charges 15 percent, and Artsy charges between 10 and 15 percent). In that way, this market is different from books, which publishers want to place in as many storefronts as possible. For a piece of art, there can be only one point of sale.

Tyler Cowen points out that Ebay's auctions are valuable for a buyer, and that a sticker-price site might not work well for the high-end stuff. But there's nothing to prevent Amazon from developing an auction capability in the future. And if the price is really too high, a prospective buyer could go around Amazon and ask the seller for a lower price--visibility might trump the pricing mechanism in this case.

Discussion, though, is still valuable. Amazon may end up buying Artsy for its commenting platform and its "genome" tool for categorizing different works, just like it bought Goodreads for a center of chatter around the things it sells. Which might mean you can have your gigantic, relatively transparent, consolidated art market — and your cozy community as well.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.



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