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Amazon buys way into online art marketplace

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By Lydia Depillis
Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, 7:26 p.m. has expanded into yet another market — 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 catalogu, 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,” owner Bill Rau said. “All that means is that there'll be a little bit less profit.”

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

“They sort of stand above anybody,” Rau said. “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.”

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 aggressively, 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 points of sale as possible.

Eventually, Amazon may just decide to buy up the smaller marketplaces that have something unique to offer.

Lydia DePillis is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

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