As lockdowns spread throughout the globe, art fairs were among the first in the art world to launch online viewing rooms (OVRs). In March 2020, Art Basel Hong Kong quickly pivoted to an online format, developing and launching a virtual platform in just weeks to accommodate galleries from around the world and welcome collectors now homebound. With limited access to gallery exhibitions and live auctions, the migration to OVRs and virtual platforms has been met with enthusiasm by collectors who remain interested in developing their art collections.
OVRs may not have the high-octane energy commonly associated with attending art fairs in person, however, navigating the viewing rooms successfully takes just as much savoir-faire. And with 30% of art collectors opting to view works virtually versus at a live event, the virtual art fair is priming to become a mainstay even amid hopes the pandemic is soon over. In planning to attend upcoming fairs virtually, here are our recommendations for navigating art fairs online:
- Prepare to view on a large screen. Some OVRs aren’t programmed for smart phones and tablets. To get the most out of the experience, opt for a large monitor or television screen.
- Log in early. Art fairs and art galleries are reporting successful sales even on opening day. Don’t wait until the last minute to explore what’s on view.
- Anticipate the desire to linger online. Interestingly, key to the success of the OVR is the content created to accompany the work of art. Prospective buyers are spending more time reading about the works, meaning galleries are investing more in the context and storytelling.
- Check out the gallery’s own website for additional viewing rooms. With some art fairs limiting how many works of art a gallery can show in the OVR, many galleries have leveraged the momentum to program their own virtual viewing spaces and hold congruent exhibitions on their websites.
- If considering acquiring a work of art virtually, request additional images. Some materials may be difficult to view through a standard JPEG. Request any additional visuals the gallery may have, such as high-resolution images, images from various angles, or a video, which can help provide a better idea of the work’s surface and scale.
- Acquire quality pieces from trusted sources. Whether building an established collection or acquiring your first work of art, seek quality pieces from established and trusted sources (vetted art fairs are a great place to start). Establish rapport with dealers who are open about their pricing and the artist’s current accomplishments, especially when working with a gallery for the first time within the virtual market.
- Be aware fellow art collectors are more and more comfortable acquiring higher-valued works of art virtually. There was a time when art collectors were hesitant to acquire works of art online that were priced over $100,000. However, this threshold has increased significantly with the migration to the virtual art world. It’s not uncommon to see works in OVRs priced over the $1 million mark, and galleries are reporting successful sales of works priced beyond $5 million. If interested in a higher-valued work listed online, don’t assume the virtual space won’t deter other buyers.
- When buying from a virtual platform, do your due diligence. Inquire about a work’s provenance (ownership history) and consider engaging an independent conservator to complete a condition report to confirm whether a work has undergone prior treatment or has existing condition issues. If you acquire a work, keep these documents on file for future reference.
- Arrange shipping and installation with professional art handlers. Transit is one of the most common causes of loss to works of art. If the gallery is arranging shipping details on your behalf, confirm the work of art will be packed and shipped by professional fine art handlers. If you prefer to select your own professionals yet are not sure who to use, contact your insurance agent or broker for a recommendation. Premium insurance companies will have a list of vetted shippers you can confidently use.
- As we shared in our tips for visiting art fairs in person, make sure you have insurance in place. To make sure your new artwork is covered in case it is damaged or stolen, you’ll want a valuable articles policy in place that offers worldwide coverage and a provision that will cover your newly acquired artwork, including works of art acquired online, for up to 90 days, for up to 25% of the value of your total itemized fine art.
Stephanie McNeil is Senior Fine Art and Collections Specialist for Chubb Personal Risk Services. She is based in New York City.
 McAndrew, Clare. Art Basel & UBS, 2020, The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector: A 2020 Mid-Year Survey.