Ordering art by mail has advantages if you can avoid the pitfalls

... I got a box of maple sugar on my birthday. And I got me a gray Mackinaw. And I got me some grapefruit from Tampa. Montgomery Ward sent me a bathtub and a cross-cut saw.... -Meredith Willson, ``The Wells Fargo Wagon,''

-from ``The Music Man'' ORDERING goods by mail is probably as old as mail service itself, though one generally thinks of clothing, furnishings, tools, or food - not fine art - as mail-order items.

Catalog sales of smaller, decorative objects and art prints, however, have been around for decades but have shown specatular growth in recent years.

Certainly, this is not true for one-of-a-kind pieces such as paintings or large sculpture which are expensive and require visits to an art gallery.

Many of the same people who order clothes and food through the mail also purchase art this way, since, for all these needs, they may live far from the retail art outlets. Art galleries can also be intimidating to many people who want to make their own choices without pressure from a dealer.

As the Christmas season approached, hundreds of mail-order catalogs were sent out by museums and art dealers as well as others not usually associated with art, such as American Express and Franklin Mint.

Prints are by far the biggest area of sales; an estimated $7 million to $8 million in prints are sold every year through the mail. Prices in catalogs range from $10 to $2,000 or more. Most buyers, however, pay between $50 and $300.

In most cases, works are ordered framed and ready for hanging. Most buyers want works framed, ``because they've never framed anything before,'' says Nigel Cook, director of Christie's Contemporary Art, a mail-order subsidiary of the auction house. ``They wouldn't know how to do it and don't want to worry about it.''

Mr. Cook and other mail-order dealers note that while most dealers are responsible and straightforward, some will use their catalogs as a way of cheating the public.

In one instance of this type, a grandnephew of Impressionist painter Pierre Renoir sent thousands of brochures to potential buyers offering ``original prints'' (for $200 to $300 apiece) signed from the seal in the artist's estate.

The prints, however, were not original - created neither by Pierre Renoir nor from lithographic plates made in the artist's lifetime - but photographic reproductions of some of the artist's paintings. After charges were brought by the US Attorney's office, the grandnephew sent a letter to every customer and offered to refund their money.

Anyone with access to a printing press can produce a catalog. Some sellers have established art print businesses as tax shelters. Several of these sprang up in the late 1970s after accountants discovered that print publishing was not specifically covered by the strict 1976 tax law.

Since the object of these shelters in most cases is to shield money from taxation by declaring large deductions and losses, selling art objects is somewhat secondary to the investor. The catalog is simply used to show the Internal Revenue Service that an attempt was made to sell the works, though the quality of the prints may be questionable.

Finding out who is a responsible dealer and who isn't can be difficult, but there are ways to begin. Word of mouth is a good start, and a local museum curator may have had some dealings with the person or company offering artworks through the mail. The size and reputation of the company are also important. American Express and Christie's, for example, have been selling prints and small sculpture for the past 11 and 13 years, respectively.

``The buyer has to rely entirely on the reputation of the operation selling the art,'' notes Sylvan Cole, former director of Associated American Artists, which started the first mail-order business of art in this country in 1934.

``A lot of Johnny-come-latelies give themselves away by offering what they call original Braque prints in black and white or, if you like, hand colored. It's obvious the artist had nothing to do with these, but the buyer has to know how to read between the lines.''

Gilbert Edelson, administrative vice-president of the Art Dealers Association, says that a buyer should ``never purchase something without seeing at least a photograph of it, and never prepay to a stranger unless you can get your money back if you are unhappy.''

Under a Federal Trade Commission statute, buyers are entitled to receive what they order within 30 days or have their money returned.

If a buyer believes he or she is a victim of mail fraud (a misleading or false advertisement made in a catalog) or consumer fraud (for instance, money is not refunded or a print edition is not ``limited''), they have several avenues of complaint.

The Federal Trade Commission regulates sales through the mail. If the seller is out of state, the postmaster general will investigate and turn over its findings to the US Attorney's office, which may indict.

If the seller is in the same state, consumers should contact the state attorney general, or, if the seller is in the same city, the Better Business Bureau or local department of consumer affairs.

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