27 January 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

To buy or not to buy

In keeping with my resolution to have a January close to home, the inaugural VIP (View in Private) Art Fair, seemed like an appropriate “outing”.

It’s not a new concept. People have been selling stuff online for ages - and we’ve been buying it. Books, holidays, tickets. But high-end art?

This is the first time an art fair of this caliber has taken place exclusively online. It featured 138 of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries from 30 countries. They represent artists like Franz Ackermann, Francis Bacon, Urs Fischer, Lucien Freud, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Jackson Pollock and William Kentridge, as well as emerging artists. We’re talking about the Gagosian Gallery, the White Cube and David Zwirnr, as well as South Africa’s Goodman Gallery

I can hardly pronounce some of their names and, much as I happen to like expensive trips overseas, there’s an obvious convenience and cost advantage to having an online fair.

Will it convert to sales? Not for me. I obviously don’t have the knowledge or the cash. But there is more to it than that. We have a South African online art market that features some excellent South African work at really good prices. I don’t buy art there either.

Browsing art from behind my desk just doesn’t elicit an emotional response from me. I can engage intellectually, but that’s as far as it goes. And if I’m not ‘feeling’ it, I’m not spending money on it. Even a little.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for VIP. I can totally see the benefits for investors and collectors who are looking to buy art for different reasons to someone like me and, have vastly different resources.

But even they may be slow on the uptake. Many auction houses and dealers jumped online in the late 1990s; with Sothebys.com (not a success) and EBay, which tried to sell a $1.77 million unauthenticated Monet and failed. A recent auction on Artnet.com, which included a Keith Haring with a top estimate of $1.2 million, was disappointing and the Haring and many other lots went unsold.

Sales aside, what the participating galleries are doing is growing their international reach and finding new audiences. And this may translate into sales later.  Are they finding the right audiences online? I don’t know. Certainly for galleries like South Africa’s Goodman Gallery and Brazil’s Galeria Luisa Strina, improved visibility amongst the international art fraternity itself can only be a good thing.

The art fair says that visitors from 130 countries viewed artwork on the site more than 3.3 million times. My curiosity added at least a little to the numbers. I’m also considering looking at www.southafricanartists.com again. What do you think?

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