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By YILU ZHAO
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 24, 2000
Last year, he said, he purchased 75 works.
"There is no question of the superiority of buying art online," said the impulsive buyer who no longer needs to make weekly trips to galleries to stock the ever-expanding collection he rotates on the walls of his apartment and houses.
Millions of Americans have decided the Web is a hassle-free way to buy products such as books and CDs. Now artists, galleries and buyers are taking the more exclusive and expensive art world online.
The most enthusiastic dealers and buyers say the advent of the Internet is a revolution: It saves display space, makes inventories unnecessary, empowers starving artists and democratizes the elite art world.
Others won't go that far, but say online galleries offer new browsing opportunities for art buyers and a little extra income for artists.
Some, however, abhor the union between the new technology and the lofty muse. Eric Lang Peterson, a widley-known art critic and appraiser in St. Petersburg, cannot stand it.
"I do not recommend buying art online. You cannot examine the piece, cannot tell the tactile, cannot get an idea of the condition," Peterson said. "Art needs to be treated highly, not just like something on home shopping, not like a stepchild."
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Steven and Kris, who studied fine arts and communications respectively in college, had wanted to own a gallery to display paintings and photographs by Steven and other artists. But the cost of renting and maintaining a conventional gallery was too steep.
The couple, who make their living designing ads and brochures, lacked the money to keep an inventory and send catalogs to potential buyers.
"But the Internet changed everything," Kris said. Now their small studio in Commerce Park on the east side of the city includes a big-screen Macintosh computer among the paints and canvasses. Their gallery exists only at www.gallerynow.com, selling experimental photos under $500 and contemporary paintings priced around $2,000.
The Internet has fulfilled their dream of being truly international: They've made sales in Italy and Australia. Speaking with artists in languages other than English, sometimes communicating through interpreters, delights Kris, who handles the business side of the gallery.
Other dealers describe the more practical benefits of online art sales. "The beauty of the Internet is that you don't need an inventory," said Phil Cole, a partner at Largo's Colemont Gallery, which also exists online at www.colemont.com. He has artists, some of whose originals he has never seen, send him images of their ceramics, jewelry and serigraphs, which he puts online. He requests the actual pieces from the artist only after they have been sold.
Many Internet dealers charge artists 35 percent commissions, much less than the traditional 50 percent, and a Web-savvy artist can avoid even those reduced fees. Dave Kellum, a Tampa sculptor, used to pay traditional galleries scattered from Barcelona to Sarasota half of his sales revenues. But Kellum learned the tricks of HTML, the language of Web design. Now he's his own middleman, selling his inventive clay sculptures at www.powow.com/kellum/index.htm, and nautical chart relief tiles at www.stas.net/tile.
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For buyers, Web shopping encourages newcomers to break into the exclusive, elitist circle of art collectors.
"There is definitely a lot less intimidation buying art online," said Uta Scharf, a vice president of Artnet.com, a virtual auction house and umbrella site that hosts more than 1,000 smaller galleries. She said a significant number of her customers are first-time art buyers who had never patronized a traditional gallery. "You look at the paintings and make your decision in your own space and time. It's a lot more relaxed."
Items featured on Artnet.com runs the gamut from minimalist furniture for a few hundred dollars to originals by deceased masters for a few million.
Frequent Internet art shoppers scoff at those like Peterson, the art critic, who say a Web browser is no place to judge fine art. "There is really no risk," nightclub owner Pastore said, "because I can always return the painting if I don't like it in person."
So far, he hasn't returned anything. In fact, he said the majority of the paintings he has ordered look better in person than on the Internet.
Scharf's 18-month experience with Artnet.com, the German-funded company in New York, suggests there are many more people like Pastore who are confident in the Internet's ability to present art. Although her company allows customers to check out the paintings in person before purchasing them, she said only two or three out of more than 1,000 recent auction buyers bothered.
While generous return policies are typical, some sites have hired in-house specialists to prevent any shoddy or fake pieces from hitting the Web in the first place. Artnet.com boasts that it has 15 experts on hand to acquire artworks and give evaluations.
Other Web sites provide visitors with extensive information on the artists and their pieces so shoppers feel more confident about what they are buying. NextMonet.com, a San Francisco company, hosts a section called "Learn About Art," a free course on contemporary art connoisseurship.
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John Farrow, co-owner of the the site Onartworks.com, is not worried about proving the values of the works sold on his Web site: He deals only in masterpieces. The online catalog lists works by Picasso, Warhol and Erte, among others, and prices go as high as $100,000.
Farrow's concern is to reach potential buyers through a thicket of competitors.
"It's no longer 1996 when you put up an art site and got on a few search engines and you were sure to get orders," said Farrow, who estimated his Los Angeles company took in more than $3-million in revenue last year. "If you just put up a Web site and hope to make money, you'll me disappointed."
Farrow plans to advertise aggressively online and offline. But most small dealers and obscure artists don't have the deep pockets to support that. Instead they earnestly study tricks of the Web trade that can improve their positioning on Web search engine lists, prime territory to catch buyer's eyes.
The Klines in Tampa also pay to get to the top of the lists. GoTo.com, a search engine, puts whoever pays the most at the top under the bidder's chosen term. Unable to afford a position on the first page of hits for someone who searches under "art," Kris and Steven have managed to squeeze into the top pages of "art card" and "art gifts." Paying GoTo.com about $5 a month, the Klines receive about 200 visits a month from the listing.
But facing stiff competition from giants such as Artnet.com, Artmecca.com (fine art and crafts, average price $250) and NextMonet.com (emerging artists' paintings, mostly under $1,500), few owners of small galleries have made their business more than a sideline.
Last year, David Kellum, the Tampa sculptor who sells his own works online, made $15,000 while his wife remained the main breadwinner. Pete Green had a profit of less than $10,000 through Bronzeart.com, although that's double the year before. The Klines would not reveal their profit but gave a hint.
"Let's put it this way," Steven said. "Without the Web site, we wouldn't be eating out and going to the movies as often."
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