November 4, 1999

Van Gogh Print or Original Oil: The Web Has It

Moving Beyond Books and Toys, New E-Commerce Sites Sell Truth and Beauty


Christine Bourron will not call what she is doing revenge against the art world, but just two years ago, she visited dozens of galleries in both Boston and New York with a simple mission: to buy an original work of art as a birthday gift for her mother. She had a clear idea of what she wanted -- a painting of flowers by any American artist. She was willing to spend about $4,000.

The galleries did not seem to want her money. "'That's not the way to buy art,'" she said they had told her. "You are supposed to look at the art, and it's supposed to talk to you.' " As she recalled this advice, her face registered what she thought of it.

She did not get what she wanted at any of the galleries, but she did get the idea for her business, which she began in March 1998.

Now, at age 32, Ms. Bourron is an instant grande dame in an industry that, though not in full bloom, is suddenly taking root: the selling of art online.

Sitting in her office in Silicon Alley in New York -- an office that has little in it except computers and paintings by artists from Africa, China and Russia -- Ms. Bourron navigates through her Web site, She is able to see a virtual reproduction of every painting that hangs on her office walls, along with thousands of other images of original works of art. They are all for sale -- and all can be searched for in 10 different ways, not just by artist or style but also by price, size, color and by more than 200 keywords, including "flower" and "vase" and "bouquet."

Aaron Lee Fineman for The New York Times
Cheryl Gross, a Brooklyn artist who specializes in painting landscapes of run-down industrial sites, sells her work on the Internet. was not the earliest site to sell art, but these days it is looking positively venerable ( Among a dozen or so such sites now in operation, most were started within the past few months. Ebay, in partnership with several auction houses, went online with its Great Collections site on Oct. 19 with 150 paintings. The minimum bids listed went as high as $20,000 and as low as $100., based in Los Angeles, went online a week earlier (, offering both original artwork and posters.

The sudden proliferation of these sites alarms some people in the art world, who question not just what protections buyers have, but whether what is offered by some of the sites can even be called art.

But others are joining the party. Sotheby's, in partnership with, is planning to hold auctions on its site by the end of this year; Christie's, focusing on works estimated at $1,000 to $10,000, plans to do so at the beginning of next year.

"It's amazing what's happening," said Terri Kahan, president and founder of yet another art e-commerce site,, based in New York, which plans to go online at the end of this month.

The sites that sell art can be roughly divided into three categories. Those like ( and ( are selling mass-produced posters, prints and reproductions. Getty Images bought, based in Illinois, and has begun a $20 million advertising campaign that is heating up this month. It includes billboards, magazine advertisements ("Get a still life") and radio spots with Peter Graves of the "Biography" television show telling the stories of various "twisted and tormented" artists and concluding, "If you'd like to purchase the work of this poor soul, go to"

At the opposite end are sites trying to put the established art world online, like the auction houses' sites, and (whose offices off Wall Street are just a few blocks away from PaintingsDirect). According to Artnet, in the six months after its debut, in March of this year, it sold a million dollars' worth of fine art in online auctions. The average price was $3,200, but a painting sold for $168,000, the company reported.

It is in this high end that the lure of online art buying is most amazing. Less than a year ago, many people in the art world said that it would never happen.

"There was a lot of pooh-poohing at first," said Martha Fleischman, the second-generation president of Kennedy Galleries, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which was founded in 1874. "So many of us -- art dealers, collectors -- were not prepared to accept that people would buy art electronically. So much of what we do is so personal, is based so much on trust."

But now, Ms. Fleischman said, "nobody wants to be left out." Many galleries have their own Web sites; a few are even selling online.

About 800 of the most reputable galleries around the world have paid a fee to be listed and have the images of their current exhibitions and some of their inventory displayed on the site.

The turnaround in the attitude of the art world, many agree, occurred after Sotheby's announced in January that it was getting into the online auction business.

An industry is suddenly taking root in the once reluctant art world.

"The art market will change more radically than any other market has changed because of the Internet," predicted Hans Neuendorf, the founder of, who has been in the art business for 35 years; he started his own gallery in Germany at age 24. "The secondary art market" -- fine art that is no longer in the hands of the artists themselves -- "is going to move to the Internet altogether by the year after next."

Not everyone is so sure. "We don't know yet what's going to happen," said Ms. Fleischman, who is one of three members of the Internet committee of the Art Dealers Association of America, which includes about 150 of the nation's leading fine-arts dealers. "I'm not convinced that people are going to buy quality art at the click of a mouse."

But if the current collectors will not necessarily abandon what they know, "the Internet will bring in new buyers who have been intimidated about art," said Andy Schoelkopf, president of Christie's Internet Auctions.

Most art e-commerce sites, including PaintingsDirect, belong to a middle category, offering lower-priced original works of art, most of it from unknown and emerging artists.

The average price of art that has sold on PaintingsDirect is $600; the highest price was $3,800, but there are many paintings that sell for as little as $40.

Ms. Bourron said the lower prices might be part of the reason 60 percent of the buyers at PaintingsDirect were purchasing original works of art for the first time in their lives.

"What's happening is a virtual Renaissance," said Leif Youngberg, who started, in Albuquerque, in May. He said the paintings at his site had sold for an average of $1,800.

"Like the Renaissance, when art was available everywhere," he said, "with the virtual Renaissance, there will be art available all over the world to anybody in the world, instantaneously."

The Internet will also widen opportunities for those making art, these entrepreneurs say. "There are 190,000 professional artists in the United States," Ms. Bourron said. "But only about 46,000 of them have art dealers because there are 4,600 art galleries in the United States, representing just 5 to 15 artists apiece."

While there are plenty of artists to go around, the art e-sites already seem to be fighting over certain ones.

Cheryl Gross, a Brooklyn artist who specializes in painting landscapes of run-down industrial sites, recalled getting a mysterious voice-mail message from a company called NextMonet.

"We'd like to represent you -- worldwide," the message said, and then there was a giggle. Ms. Gross did not know what the caller was talking about, but "worldwide" was something of a pun -- a reference to the World Wide Web.

Soon after, Ms. Gross was sought out by, a Wisconsin-based e-commerce company that sells original paintings but specializes in crafts.

Ms. Gross decided to go with NextMonet, which started up in June and is based in San Francisco. She became one of 400 artists under contract to the site.

In the few short months of the affiliation, Ms. Gross said, she has been happier with NextMonet than she has been with the various brick-and-mortar galleries that represent her. Both the galleries and NextMonet take 50 percent as their commission. But of NextMonet, Ms. Gross said: "I get paid almost immediately. Sometimes with the galleries I have to go after the money."

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