Would you buy an Old Master online?

If Van Gogh were alive today, would he sell his art online? And if he did, would anyone buy it?
Written by Margaret Kane, Contributor
If Van Gogh were alive today, would he sell his art online? And if he did, would anyone buy it?

It's questions like these that Web sites such as ArtStar.com and NextMonet.com must answer.

These sites, and others like them, are aiming their brushes at both traditional art buyers and those who may never have hung anything on their walls besides a travel poster, but who have the discretionary income to lay out US$3,000 for a work by an up-and-coming artist.

"The market for art extends from the college student who goes and buys a poster of a Matisse for US$14, up to the collector who can buy an original for US$95,000," said David Udow, vice president of Internet marketing at ArtStar.com, a division of ShowStar Online, an Internet content developer.

"I can't think of a person in North America who doesn't have something on their walls. We see the market as being all encompassing."

A Web Renaissance?
Buying fine art online might seem like a stretch, and indeed, most e-commerce analysts have paid little attention to the fledgling field. But one analyst who has, thinks it has great potential.

"So many consumers simply don't have access to the channels," said Mike May, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York. "This is one category where the Internet can incrementally grow the entire industry."

It hasn't happened yet, but the nascent business has scored some early wins.

At Guild.com -- launched by art sourcebook publisher The Guild -- one customer placed an order for 13 paintings and one photograph, worth US$53,000 (Guild.com's average order: US$425). The site won't give sales figures, but said orders in December were 2.5 times higher than in September.

In December, ArtStar.com auctioned off portions of the Chapman S. Root collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia and general Americana. In the first phase of the auction, which comprised 600 lots, roughly half were sold, bringing in nearly US$100,000.

More comfortable than galleries?
While it may seem that selling art online would be inherently more difficult than selling it in person -- after all, you don't get to see the work in person --these sites argue that the Internet is a perfect fit for consumers who may be uncomfortable at galleries.

'I can't think of a person... who doesn't have something on their walls. We see the market as being all encompassing.'
-- David Udow, ArtStar.com

"A lot of those people are individuals who have the disposable income, but they don't necessarily have an art background and so may be intimated and puzzled by what's available to them," said Myrna Nickelson, CEO of NextMonet.com, which is funded by CMGI Inc.'s @Ventures fund.

"That makes it more valuable to go online, because the demographics are obviously there. The market has always existed and been there, but they haven't been served adequately by the traditional way of doing things."

Making newcomers to art comfortable buying online is the reason many of the new sites are focusing almost as heavily on education as on the art.

At ArtStar.com, for example, consumers can look up terms and techniques in a glossary, read stories about new museum exhibits, or research artists and periods through online articles.

Does it match the couch?
"It's a complicated subject matter -- there's a small number of people who are educated about it," said ArtStar.com's Udow. "Many, many people are afraid and intimidated to walk into a gallery, because they don't know what to say and what to ask.

"What we're doing is providing education and information about making purchases. We (want) everyone from a serious art collector to high school student to use it as their starting point."

The sites have also arranged their art in ways that might seem a bit avant-garde -- or just plain odd -- to traditional galleries.

At Guild.com, consumers can search for art using categories like "fish" or "seascape." NextMonet.com offers a "See It In My Room" feature that allows consumers to create a virtual living room to see how well that painting goes with their couch.

And unlike gallery exhibitions that tend to focus on a style of art or a particular artist, the sites can display a wide variety of art, which may help pull in more customers.

Converting the art-haters
"You'll often find people who say, 'I don't like modern art.' They've gone to a few galleries where they see works of art that they don't get or understand," said NextMonet's Nickelson.

'I was a little skeptical that people would buy things online. ... (But) next thing you know, pieces are selling -- now I would say it's a major part of sales for me.'
-- David Collins, artist

"But what they may be reacting to is that particular style by those artists at those galleries. They walk away presuming they don't like contemporary art because they've only seen a few examples."

Putting the art online allows consumers to view works they may not have been able to see in the real world -- whether it's because they were intimidated by the gallery world or because they simply don't live nearby.

One such convert is Maureen Gupta, who regularly buys paintings and ethnic art, but had never purchased a work she hadn't seen in person.

Until, that is, she saw an ad for Guild.com, and went to the site.

"There was a particular artist where I kept saving the items to review. And I ended up buying three things," she said.

Making art more accessible
The artists who sell through these sites say it gives them a chance to display their work to an audience they might not have previously reached.

"In some ways it's more exciting, just because it's new technology -- I was very interested to see that it worked," said David Collins, a New York-based artist whose abstract oils have been exhibited on NextMonet. "I thought it would be great chance for exposure."

"However," he said, "I was a little skeptical that people would buy things online. For me as a painter, (buying art is) about developing a relationship and falling in love with a work.

"Instead, I (realized) that thousands of people would be able to see that work that wouldn't (see it) ordinarily. Next thing you know, pieces are selling. Now I would say it's a major part of sales for me."

Collins' point about developing a relationship with the work was echoed by other artists who sell through these sites, and by some buyers.

Would you buy a Picasso online?
A few, like Gupta, said that while they would be willing to buy small items through the Internet, they would be hesitant about paintings and larger pieces.

But that's a fear the sites hope to conquer with education and customer service.

And they're banking upon the fact that art is something that virtually everyone has an interest in -- whatever their taste.

Who knows? Online art aficionados just might discover the next Monet ... or Van Gogh.

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