When Stewart Waltzer, an art collector in New York, decided to bid on a Matisse drawing he liked, he knew it was within his price range. But before he responded to the dealer's quote, he did his homework using ArtNet, an online database. The service let him pull up photos of similar works and review their sales histories. What he found was that comparable drawings had sold for around $90,000 at auction within the past two to three years, about 25% less than the dealer's asking price for the Matisse. That information helped Waltzer save more than $30,000 on his purchase.
Viewing art online doesn't replace the pleasure of pausing over a work before buying it. Nevertheless, collectors are finding satisfying ways to explore the market without budging from their PCs. What's more, art lovers who would rather look than buy can peruse world-class collections through thousands of museum and gallery sites on the World Wide Web. General services, such as CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy, offer much more limited forums for buying and selling art, but they're fine for browsing.
VIRTUAL BIDDING. ArtNet (800 4-ARTNET) is the most extensive of the private online databases catering to the art market. With its special software, you can get access to auction results from 500 houses in 28 countries and tap 50 international galleries. However, at a sliding-scale rate that starts at $1.75 per minute after one free hour a month, ArtNet isn't for the casual browser but for the serious collector interested in comparing prices or tracking down select pieces throughout the world.
The major auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, both sponsor Web sites that let you view a selection of works for sale as well as order catalogs. Of the two, the Sotheby's offering is the more comprehensive. For example, it provides an interactive crash course on buying art at auction for the uninitiated. Three scenarios walk you through the process, from evaluating the condition of a work to bidding. If your virtual bid doesn't land the item you want during the practice session, a message flashes "Our Condolences."
Popular online services offer bulletin boards for buying and exchanging information about art. The works featured may include everything from comic books to mass-market prints. To avoid getting taken, never purchase anything based solely on the online representation. Either arrange to see the work in person or obtain a money-back guarantee in case you hate it once it arrives.
If you're just interested in browsing, your computer gives you entry to the virtual corridors of some of the world's top museums and galleries. One of the easiest ways to search is through the art section of the Web's Yahoo! directory, which will connect you to a bewildering array of choices. World Wide Art Resources is another excellent passageway, letting users scan more than 7,000 listings. It's a great reference if you're planning to visit a city and want to check out current museum exhibitions. ARTscope is a link away from many major New York and West Coast galleries. And artnetweb allows you to sample the avant-garde of online art, such as the Art Crimes Front Page, which is devoted to graffiti.
SKETCHY IMAGES. Specific museum and gallery online offerings vary widely. The Guggenheim Museum's Web page allows you to view works from its current exhibition, followed by a statement from the artist and quotes from critics. You can also click on the artist's photograph or check out museum schedules. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art site, you will find interactive floor plans that help you wander at will through more than 30 centuries of art. The WebMuseum serves up an array of art sites from Seoul to Berlin that can be accessed through hot links, or words you click on.
Be forewarned: Viewing art online does not offer the clarity of a TV image, much less the real thing. The picture on your screen may appear sketchy, as the widely used 8-bit computer monitors can pick up only 256 colors, compared with 16 million on a 24-bit monitor. A frequent complaint is that it can take an eternity to download images, but this is improving as Web sites are enhanced. On a road test with three online services and a 14.4 modem, it took 2 to 8 minutes to download Edgar Degas' Dance Class at the Opera from the WebMuseum. But that's still quicker than going to a library to look up the painting, or, for that matter, flying to Paris to see it firsthand.