A New Way to Sell Paintings: Put Them on the Internet

Some artists have their own home pages; others use a Web service

Aggressive artists try every avenue in the effort to sell their work: advertising, showing in malls or fairs, selling by mail order, hiring an agent, and even consigning art to TV's Home Shopping Network - whatever will move a picture.

Artists generally have a love-hate relationship with the art-gallery system - viewing dealers as a conservative, lazy, and greedy bunch - and many look for a way to bypass it.

The latest approach: marketing art on the Internet.

In addition to artists who have set up their own home pages on the World Wide Web, some Web sites have become digital art galleries that can connect buyers to works by many artists, which can be bought commission-free.

The question now is, does any art actually get sold this way?

The answer may be yes, no, and stay tuned.

The promoters of on-line art marketing systems take a long view, looking as much toward the future as at the present.

Kathy Kahre, president and owner of ArtQuest in St. Louis, Mo., says many collectors are "seasoned buyers who know what they want" and do not necessarily need dealers, whose offerings are likely to cost more because of their commissions.

"Dealers still believe that art is a very, very special commodity that has to be marketed in a very precious way," says Bruce Mazer, co-owner of Art Systems Ltd. in New York. "That mentality is going to be broken. It's going to be a slow process, but eventually an alternative art market is going to develop."

The on-line systems typically work like this: Artists and collectors put images and text information about works on a computer system. Other on-line users, potential buyers, can search the site according to their interests, such as in art categories (painting, sculpture), subcategories (realism, watercolor), artist's names, or price ranges. Relevant images and text appear on the computer screen. A shopper can generally purchase a work by telephone, electronic mail, or regular mail.

"I had been an art dealer for many years," says ArtQuest owner Ms. Kahre. "Someone would ask me about some particular artwork. I'd make calls to 10 people, who would themselves make calls to 10 other people, and by the time I found the work it was at its highest price. I just knew there had to be a better way to get information."

On ArtQuest's site (go to "http://www.artquest.com" on the Web), artists can list "as many pieces as you want," she says. Buyers may contact the artist directly through e-mail to negotiate a sale. (List prices are displayed next to on-line images.)

Another art-marketing Internet site is Artists OnLine, based in Irving, Texas (http://www.onlineart.com). In promoting its service to artists, the company notes that "galleries, interior designers, art consultants, decorators, architects, corporations, and individual collectors from around the world can simultaneously review your portfolio as you would want it to be displayed."

Art dealers continue to believe that collectors will need to physically view artwork before buying - that the effort to circumvent the gallery system is an idea whose time has not yet come. They say the ability to track images of works in storage, drawing them up on a computer screen to interest prospective buyers, may start a sale, but not complete one.

"Most collectors want to see the art, not just look at pictures of it," says Gilbert Edelson, administrative vice president of the Art Dealers Association of America. "And dealers want people to come into the galleries to look at the art, too. A lot of what goes into making a sale is the personal contact between the buyer and the dealer, gaining the confidence of the collector. It's that sense of trust that makes the buyers want to come back."

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