Purchasing a Picasso -- via mail order

The "book club" approach has come to art collecting. You've seen the ads: "Now you can own art that is as original as you are." "Your home can have something in common with the Met, the Tate, and the Louvre."

It sounds pretty good -- who wouldn't want to be thought of as a patron of the arts, a Renaissance person of culture?

These ads are for clubs selling original prints via mail-order catalog. Generally, they calim to offer quality art at reasonable prices because they buy in bulk and have low overhead. They are sprouting up at a time when more and more people have the money and leisure time -- and education -- to think about collecting.

"It's not an ideal way to buy art," says one New York artist who nonetheless sees value in such clubs. They are generally honest businesses, he says, and they offer a certain "support system" for neophyte collectors, particularly those far from major art centers.

But, he says, with their preselecting catalogues, the clubs take away much of the drama and risk that are a large part of the pleasure for small-scale collectors.

Art dealers, not exactly known for their cutlural egalitarianism, speak disparagingly of prints offered through clubs as "bland" or "merely decorative."

"Very few young artists in this format [on contract with print clubs] are working in real esthetic issues," says a New York dealer.

As a way to collect big-name artists, the clubs are more for people who want "a Chagall" or "a Picasso" rather than a particular print of that master's with which they've fallen in love.

"We don't even see those people as in the same business as we are," a Boston dealer sniffs. This attitude notwithstanding, galleries obviously stand to lose business from clubs -- and the galleries are no longer just in New York.

Some dealers suggest the clubs don't really offer bargain prices. But Bruce Whyte, founder and president of the Original Print Collectors Group, Ltd., one of the oldest and most successful groups, disputes this. He says, "Generally we can do better than other galleries," and estimates that his club undersells them by 10 to 20 percent. He also notes that his club offers several "buried values" -- its prices inlcude framing, shipping, and a standing offer to buy back any print in good condition with which a member is dissatisfied.

Sidney Kanegis of Boston, a dealer who now sells mostly to curators and serious connoisseurs, sees print groups as a helpful school for beginning collectors. "If a 20,000- member club is able to educate even 100 people into serious collecting on their own," he says, "that's a good thing for everybody in the art world."

The print clubs tends to play down the investment potential of their offerings. But they do mention discreetly that prints in general have appreciated greatly in recent years, and a rising tide lifts all boats.However, having once been sold through a club seems to carry a certain stigma for some prints, limiting their potential for price appreciation. One appraiser lays part of the blame for this on the "arrogance of the art world."

Like the late Nelson Rockefeller's high- quality art reproductions and other schemes for mass-merchandising culture, the print clubs raise questions about what constitutes an authentic artistic experience. They also raise the question of how close to the work of a great artist the small-scale private collector can reasonably expect to come. After all, soaring prices are turning people from paintings to small-edition original prints, and from original prints to reproductions.

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