Just moments ago, from the comfort of my apartment, I bought a limited-edition Damien Hirst artwork for $21. It took about five minutes and just as many clicks of the mouse.
I downloaded it from s[edition], a website offering limited-edition digital art by the likes of artists Shepard Fairey, Bill Viola and Tracey Emin. The Hirst work is a high-resolution image for display on a computer screen or mobile device. You could call it a screen print but that might get confusing.
It seems somehow appropriate that I can legitimately own a copy of Hirst's glorified dots rendered in pixels, those other glorified dots.
It's also a sign of the times. In recent years, the film, television, publishing and music industries have been radically transformed by the internet. Now the art market is undergoing its own digital revolution. The crucial difference is that, apart from the e-art on offer at s[edition], we're not talking about the digitisation of the product.
The art market continues, and will continue, to be based on the transaction of physical objects. Instead, some buyers are shifting their attention from traditional galleries to online channels, where they can browse, buy and bid for art.
The virtual art marketplace is abuzz. Online galleries Artspace, Artfinder, Artsy and VIP Art are attracting the kind of traffic their real-world counterparts can only dream about. Christie's and Sotheby's have launched online auction platforms, while new online auction houses Artnet Auctions, Artprice and Paddle8 cover the more modest end of the spectrum.
The old argument that buyers want to see artworks in the flesh before they buy no longer applies. In this age of ubiquitous e-commerce, buyers are more comfortable than ever with online shopping, and only too willing to purchase clothing, furniture and now art sight unseen. A report published this year by art insurers Hiscox found that more than 70 per cent of buyers surveyed had bought art over the web.
The range of work on show on the web's infinite wall space - at any time of day - is immense. It is a 24/7 art fair without all the walking. There's also none of the pressure or intimidation of the gallery environment. You don't need a ticket to Venice. You don't even need to be wearing pants.
''Artists will always depend on the brick-and-mortar ecosystem to establish authority and context,'' says Paddle8 co-founder Alexander Gilkes. But the online market offers ''the democratisation of luxury''.
''The most elite assets are now available to many more consumers. It used to be that blue-chip works were only available to a handful of select collectors with connections to dealers and auction houses; now, the process has become less opaque, and access has increased dramatically,'' Gilkes says.
Christine Kuan, the chief curator at Artsy - a service that connects collectors to sellers online - agrees. ''Many of the barriers that prevented people from collecting are being broken down by the internet,'' she says.
''Not only can more people learn about and fall in love with art, but the web makes it really easy for someone in China to buy a work in Paris or someone in New York to discover a young artist in Brazil.''
The Australian outfit Art Pharmacy launched in November 2012 and is one of the most recent galleries to spring up online. It occasionally materialises in the real world for pop-up exhibitions and artist meet-and-greets around Sydney but there is a sense that the proper way to visit is through the website. Judging by the snowballing popularity of the site, it is a model that suits a lot of art lovers.
''We all lead busy lives, with children or long work hours,'' founder and director Emilya Colliver says. ''People don't necessarily have the opportunity to come to you. What they can easily do, though, is go online at home.''
According to the Hiscox report, 26 per cent of collectors have spent more than £50,000 ($85,000) on a single work of art online. But Colliver is less interested in courting hardened collectors than in making art accessible and affordable for young, first-time buyers. It's a demographic that responds strongly to social media. Much of the Art Pharmacy Twitter feed is dedicated to tips on approaching that first art purchase.
''They're people who'd like to buy something but don't know where to buy it from,'' Colliver says. ''People who are starting to nest, who love interior and love design. You can see them at our pop-up shows, usually in couples, 25 to 35 years old. They've just started their home and they need to fill a certain space.
''You can start a collection with $200 a year. I get annoyed that some people still pick up prints from IKEA. You don't need a lot of money to start collecting.''
Whatever Colliver's target demographic, online shopping for art has appeal across the board. One of Art Pharmacy's return customers, Sydney software engineer-turned-nursing student Christopher Hughes-Gage, is in his 60s and has been buying art with his partner for 12 years. He still visits real-world galleries, but finds the online experience convenient and enjoyable. He goes online to search for work by a particular artist or simply to browse - occasionally printing pictures to figure out where to hang them.
''I constantly return to review new pieces and collections,'' Hughes-Gage says. ''There's a greater source of works online than what is normally available in conventional galleries.''
One dealer who understands that art-browsing habits have changed is Michael Reid. His galleries - one tucked in a Victorian terrace in Elizabeth Bay and another in a converted 19th-century convict barracks in the upper Hunter Valley - are pleasant places to visit. Nevertheless, many collectors now prefer to view the art onscreen, he says.
''Once upon a time, collectors took the opportunity to stroll around the galleries on a Saturday. Your classic art-interested couple would drop the kids off at sport and visit five galleries for a browsing view on the day. All that has changed. That couple now browse online and decide which of, say, 20 galleries they will actually visit. If at all.''
The industry as a whole has failed to come to terms with this reality, Reid says. ''The arts industry has been slow to ride the waves of change. In fact, I would state that, for generally well-educated people that work on the coal face of cutting-edge contemporary art and with new ideas, I have never been so surrounded before by such a group of innately conservative people.
''Very few of my colleagues have their eyes raised above their art shops, scanning the horizon, looking towards a new world.''
Reid is active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His website features image previews of exhibitions, art slideshows and video interviews. There are regular online-only exhibitions, usually of works priced at less than $1000. Reid aims to treat these exhibitions with as much importance and weight as the physical shows. There are iPhone and iPad apps on the way.
''In essence, it allows people to engage with my galleries on any number of levels - creating an arts-interested ecosystem for everyone - irrespective of whether you can afford to acquire the art the gallery positions or not.''
For some artists, the internet offers a way of bypassing the traditional gallery system altogether. Artist Hazel Dooney made considerable waves in the industry when she abandoned the ''bricks and mortar and middlemen'' to go it alone in her career, marketing and selling her work online herself.
Dooney had been disenchanted with the system for a long time. ''I found myself at the mercy of unscrupulous, manipulative dealers and the inflated egos - and simpering social sensitivities - of institutional curators,'' she says. ''I felt increasingly disconnected from those most interested in my work - the people who actually collected it.''
By going online, Dooney says she has reclaimed a voice and visibility the gallery system did not allow her. Through social media, she broadcasts her thoughts, her inspirations and the intimate details of her personal life to a legion of followers. She provides unfiltered access into her life, uploading photos of herself painting, shaving her head and having sex.
This direct, uninhibited communication, Dooney explains, has translated into huge interest in her art. She says the value of her work, and her income, has risen exponentially since she set out on her own. She believes there could be serious repercussions for the dealers who would come between the artist and the consumer.
''The artist has to welcome this as an opportunity, not just to sell art but to help the audience to better understand and appreciate what they are attempting in their work,'' she says.
''The audience is now connected directly to the artist, and it will at best suspect, but more probably, resent any attempt to filter or control it, or worse, manipulate it.''
For the foreseeable future, the art market is immune from the scourge devastating most other creative industries: the public's overwhelming desire to get stuff without paying for it. It is not that art lovers are any more morally upstanding than most; it's just that no one's invented a way to illegally download an artwork straight to a living room wall. But as the online art market draws more buyers, the comparison presents itself: those unable to think outside the box will be left behind.
Having said all that, there's one fundamental art world experience that the internet has failed to recreate: There is, so far, no online equivalent to a real-life gallery exhibition opening, with its artfully dressed scenesters pecking at cheese platters, quaffing champagne, schmoozing, dropping names and broadcasting their opinions.
You know, come to think of it, I think I might stay home.
Tricks of the trade
❏ Before you browse, have some idea what you want in terms of medium and style.
❏ Know your budget and stick to it. Are you really in the market for a Warhol?
❏ Take the time to do your research. Like any investment, it will inform your decision. Many sites offer knowledgeable appraisals from experts as part of the service.
❏ Check the fine print. Many galleries offer generous exchange and refund policies and waive the shipping fee.
❏ Bookmark the site and come back later. One of the perks of online shopping is not having to decide on the spot.