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How the web has enticed collectors
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Virginia Blackburn explains how you can learn a lot about art as well aws buying and selling online
Published in The Times, February 14, 2004


TALK to the uninitiated about the internet and chances are that they are more likely to associate it with low life rather than high art. But they would be mistaken. For as the internet has grown, and as the rest of us have got used to using it, it has become an important tool in building collections. The result is that it is possible to live anywhere, while remaining entirely up to date with the international art market.
"The internet has already had an extraordinary impact on collecting," says Stephen Wood, an art consultant who advises museums, galleries and individuals on art collections. "As a result of specialist engines almost nothing goes unnoticed now. There is no doubt that the internet has shone light into dark corners."
Peter Nahum, who runs the Leicester Gallery in London, and is frequently seen on the Antiques Roadshow, says: "The old-fashioned way of dealing, which was closeted and cliquey, is finished. The internet has opened up information to a global population. It is now a very important tool when it comes to investing in art"
Research
Before starting to collect, it is essential to know what you want and here the internet cannot be bettered. Type in the name of an artist or type of art and you are very likely to receive at least some information on the person or period, to give you a start. But what many people do not realise is that they can use the internet to seek specific items and watch for upcoming sales.
Both the British Association of Antique Dealers (Bada) and the Association of Art and Antique Dealers (Lapada) have websites listing their members. It is possible to search these websites by various criteria, including location and stock.
This means that if you wanted to find a dealer specialising in early English silver somewhere near Bath, you could use the search engines to do exactly that, and as most dealers now have a website, you could see exactly what is in stock.
"It has made information about dealers much more accessible," says Mark Hodgson, the deputy secretary general of Bada, who is currently researching the impact its websites have had upon Bada members. "Now people can see what is for sale on a site - though most prefer to have a look at the item in the flesh."
There are further specialist sites designed for collectors to alert them to specialist sales. The website Invaluable has linked with 950 auction houses worldwide, to allow users to search hundreds of catalogues online, as well as listing prices achieved in past sales. The website for the Antiques Trade Gazette provides a similar function. Other sites such as Artcyclopedia give information on artists, including links to biographies and information about museums that hold their work.
Online galleries
There are two types of online gallery: websites created for an existing dealer or gallery, or galleries that exist only in virtual space. Peter Nahum's website for the Leicester Gallery exemplifies the first.
"I was very late to websites, and only started mine about five years ago, but I wanted to get it right," says Mr Nahum, who also designed the Bada site. "I now have more than 5,000 images on my website, and a vast amount of my research, which I encourage academics and collectors to use."
The format has been so successful that Mr Nahum now sells the template of his website to other dealers. And he is keen to rebuff the notion that online websites can be dangerous because you are not able to examine the object of your desire in person. "Before a buyer can handle the goods, he or she has to source the goods and that's where my website comes in. Then, when they've seen what I have in stock, they can come to the gallery and see a painting for themselves."
However, he adds that an established dealer has a reputation to protect, which would be destroyed were he to use a website to sell damaged goods. "I have sold pictures to collectors who have not seen them in person because they trust me," he says. "In addition we often buy pictures online - subject to seeing them."
LondonArt, run by Paul Wynter, is the second type of gallery: although it organises specific exhibitions for a couple of weeks at a time in earthbound galleries, as a gallery itself, it exists only online.
He says: "I started LondonArt in 1997 because I'm an artist and everyone I knew had problems getting into galleries. I knew something about the internet, so I started building a site for artists. It didn't exactly take off - it was a couple of years before I sold anything."
The business, however, is now well established and profitable. The site features 10,000 images from 900 artists and sells 20 to 30 works a month at an average price of ?750- ?800. "If you go to a traditional gallery, you may see only a dozen paintings, or 60 to 70 if it's a large gallery," he adds. "We have far more works than most galleries and between four and five thousand people visit the site every day. A Cork Street gallery doesn't have that."
London Art takes only 35 per cent commission, rather than the more usual 50 per cent, because his business is not so expensive to run. And if the buyer doesn't like what he or she has bought, the work can be maintained, although to date, London Art has less than a 1 per cent return rate.
Auction houses
As with galleries, there are two types of online auction house: established businesses with their own website, or internet-only auction houses. In the latter category, by far the most famous is eBay, founded by Pierre Omidyar, which first went online in September 1995. After his wife, Pamela, confided how much she would like to trade Pez sweet dispensers online, Mr Omidyar realised there was the gem of an idea here and set up a website where not only Pez dispensers, but anything at all could be traded online. Unlike so many online businesses, this one took off immediately and is now the undisputed king of online auctions. It has ten million items up for auction at any one time, with one million added every day.
Almost everything you care to think of is now traded on eBay including paintings, glassware, jewellery and furniture. It is possible to follow auctions online - they tend to last from between three to ten days - which means that before bidding yourself, you can get some idea of what an item is really worth. It is also possible to compare prices on eBay with those elsewhere.
Back on earth, all the big auction houses and most of the small ones now have their own website, which means that it is no longer necessary to leaf through a catalogue or stroll through a preview to see what is on offer: just about everything is online. Sotheby's, Christies and Bonhams have websites, with online auction catalogues, and information about their services, departments and a calendar of sales.
The only problem with online listings is that you must be extremely careful about the condition of the object, and if in any doubt whatsoever, view it in person. It is also not possible to bid online: if you can't attend in person, you either have to bid on the telephone or lodge a previous bid with the auction house. But all initial searching and research can be done online.
And it looks almost certain than online bidding will one day be with us. Sotheby's experimented with it briefly a couple of years ago. It has now stopped, but will no doubt start again one day. After all - it worked for eBay.