Back in 2006 or so, Ebay was hopping with a huge trend called ACEO (Art Cards, Editions and Originals). Hundreds of artists were hawking all manner of subjects and media in a 2.5" x 3.5" format. Prices ranged from under $1 to hundreds of dollars (both prices were not always deserved, in my honest opinion).
The appeal was obvious - collect multiple pieces of art without losing wall space. Comparatively low cost, perfect for people who live in apartments, love to collect things, and the excitement of auctions.... no wonder it was a trend.
Like many artists, I sold many ACEO (I think I painted upwards of 190 of them). It was a steady income stream that was fraught with it's own concerns. Marketing was very important, you had to keep on the hamster wheel of being noticed in order to get the bidding frenzy going. Listing fees could become a growing concern (etsy was a life saver when it came into being because it's low fees meant that you could post unsold auction items without eating too deeply into meagre profits). Then there were the meagre profits, meagre, but really, really, steady. If you were consistent and painted popular subject matter, you could usually sell most of your cards in the first go around. The problem is, when you look at it as an hourly wage... it would fall into the "retail slave" category (or less if you didn't stay active).
So why did I stick with it? A few reasons:
Building an online presence. Supermarkets call them "Loss Leaders" - something that you don't make money on but gets people into your store and builds brand recognition. Lots of my positive feedback came from selling ACEOs. I know people who are considering buying a painting are far more likely to choose a seller that has one hundred+ positive feedbacks as opposed to three.
Experience. Part of becoming a better painter is by just sucking it up and painting. Practicing lines, experimenting with colour placement, trying new subject. Canvas costs money and if you are a one income family, like we were at the time, cheap and easy is the way to go. This allowed me to develop a strong hand eye coordination and confidence. Not all artwork is a masterpiece - this allowed me to pay my dues, so to speak.
I love painting. These allowed me to have some funds to put into art supplies. Our budget was so tight, I wouldn't have been able to afford canvas and paint without taking away things from our family budget. ACEO allowed me to paint fun things as well. Not everything has to be serious and I have a hard time releasing myself from that idea. I could paint flapper girls and mermaids and enjoy intricate patterns and line work.
Are ACEO dead?
I'm not sure. Looking into Ebay and etsy these days, I can for sure say that they've had their heyday. There are still thousands of listings but the quality and they buyers are not what they were a few years ago. This might mean that there is room for some up and coming artists who are willing to shine in a sea of mediocrity. Without the bidders, I'm not sure it would be worth it though. I suspect the decline will continue for a while. Then maybe they will have a renaissance.
I'd be interested to see if those early investors will see a strong reseller's market on these. So far, unless the artist's have a strong career outside of ACEO, I doubt those investments will pay off in the near future if just being resold as ACEO (unlike sports collector cards that these are derived from....)