A large chunk of the art market has moved online during the pandemic, to some extent making up for the otherwise reduced activity in the sector as museums and galleries closed to the public and art fairs were cancelled. Since the online trend is here to stay, underwriters are mulling over what this may mean for the fine art insurance demand.

Art lovers surely missed the thrilling atmosphere and frenzy of activity at vernissages and art fairs whilst COVID-19 restrictions were in place and they are certainly looking forward to a post pandemic future when such events can resume. However, from an underwriting perspective, this lull has significantly reduced claims in the sector since the main source of claims is damage suffered by artworks during transit. 

Activity slows down

During the pandemic, the lending of art pieces by collectors, museums or other institutions to exhibitions came to a standstill. Similarly, art dealers and auctioneers have mostly stopped moving valuable pieces around to show them to potential buyers at fairs. 

Since the reduced activity has also lowered the risk exposure, some insurers have offered to renegotiate contracts with clients or even to return premiums to clients who had purchased coverages for exhibitions that were cancelled. 
At the same time, the lack of movement has created new exposures for some clients, mostly linked to the accumulation of art pieces in storage units, which in some cases has required an adjustment of coverages as the value at risk for storage units rose in the event of a fire or water leakage.  

But the arts business has not come to a complete standstill during the pandemic. Galleries and art fairs boosted their online presence to remain open for business, offering collectors and art lovers an alternative to browse and acquire new pieces online. 

Online activity picks up

Perhaps unsurprisingly, purchasing art online has been particularly popular among younger art lovers. A majority of millennial art buyers (54%) and new art buyers (60%) said their interest and confidence in buying art online had increased as the art world switched to virtual sales in the COVID-19 lockdown, according to the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2020

Instagram has strengthened its importance in the art world, with 68% of art buyers saying it is their preferred social media platform for art-related purposes. This holds true particularly for new and younger art buyers, but the online art market has attracted all age groups during the pandemic. Between March and September, over two thirds (67%) of art buyers surveyed by Hiscox bought art online, up from 44% in 2019. 

High-spending art buyers are increasingly entering the online market in another sign that the online art market is becoming more established. Nearly nine-out-of-ten (86%) of those who spend more than $50,000 on art a year visited online art sales platforms weekly during the period, up from 69% in 2019.

The online activity has boosted the volumes of fine art in transit during the pandemic, somewhat compensating for the reduced activity in the analogue market. This has also raised demand for insurance coverage required to protect such transactions. As more art is sold online, the risk of buying fakes or works of dubious provenance may also increase, but the full implications of this change for underwriters from a risk perspective have yet to be analysed. 

Even professional art experts can fall victim of online fraud. In a widely reported case, criminals have intercepted the email exchange between the art dealer Simon C. Dickinson and the Rijksmuseum Twenthe over the sale of a famous painting by John Constable at the end of 2018 and were able to interfere in the transaction and lure the museum to deposit the payment sum of £2.4 million into a fraudulent account by impersonating Dickinson in a spoof email. The two parties have been embroiled in a court battle since over who is liable for the loss.  

In any case, additional background research before purchasing art online can help reduce the risk of falling victim of a fraud. 

Recommendations:  

  • Prefer well-known sites and check user reviews
  • Explore the social media platform of the artist
  • Make sure your credit card includes payment protection for online purchases
  • If buying directly from an artist, don't hesitate to give them a call before the transaction
  • Check if the authenticity of the artist has been verified when buying through a third party website
  • Ask for the purchase to be documented in a legally binding contract or at least insist on an invoice
  • Watch out for poor grammar and spelling on online platforms
  • It is unusual for art websites to have a lot of advertising and pop-ups. 
  • Pay attention to the address bar: the “s” in https stands for secure and indicates that the website uses encryption to transfer data
  • Check that the terms and conditions are disclosed on the website and are included in the sales contract and invoice

Author:

Anna Maria Amato

Fine Art Europe, Head of Fine Art Italy, Specie & Fine Art Practice