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Koons, Hirst Woo Collectors as Art Fairs Face Online Challenge

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Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The Internet revolution has at long last reached international art fairs as a new event tests buyers’ willingness to shop online for contemporary works.

Billionaire collectors and their agents spend weeks each year traveling the world to events such as Art Basel, Art Basel/Miami Beach, Frieze and FIAC. Now they are being urged to save time and money -- purchasing from the comfort of their own homes at the virtual VIP Art Fair, announced this month.

“Just out of curiosity, VIP is going to attract a lot of visitors,” Todd Levin, a New York-based art adviser and curator, said in an interview. “People have become confident about buying from J-PEGs, as long as they can be sure about the condition of a piece.”

If VIP is a success, other online events may follow and traditional “live” fairs may have to enhance their Web presence, said dealers. While advisers such as Levin will continue to travel, the event will challenge the Internet’s reputation for being mainly a selling platform for lower-value artworks. VIP will offer heftily priced pieces by artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst and Andreas Gurksy.

Collectors are increasingly willing to use the Internet to buy art at auction. Already, a quarter of bids at Christie’s International auctions are made online, with such sales in the first half of 2010 increasing 63 percent from the equivalent period last year.

Gagosian Browsing

Two New York-based couples -- dealers James and Jane Cohan and Internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren -- have spent more than two years devising the VIP fair. For a week, from Jan. 22 to Jan. 30, 2011, anyone will be able to use the Internet to browse works at more than 50 of the world’s leading contemporary-art galleries. International art-fair regulars Gagosian, White Cube, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and Sadie Coles are among the event’s 12 founding participants.

VIP tickets, costing $100 on the first two days and $20 thereafter, will give would-be buyers interactive contact with galleries through instant messaging, Skype or telephone. The fair’s website will allow visitors to zoom in on the paintings, enjoy multiple views of sculptures and watch videos.

“It’s a lot easier to go to an art fair when you can do it in an easy chair,” Levin said. The lavish parties and dinners thrown by galleries when collectors fly into town wouldn’t be missed. “If the social aspect is why you’re participating at an art fair, you’re not going for the right reason,” he said.

Dealers are attracted to the VIP Art Fair, the first of its kind, by the opportunity of gaining new clients from emerging economies, said James Cohan, co-founder of the fair, who also has a gallery in Shanghai.

Chinese Presence

Buyers from China, which this month became the world’s second-largest economy, have so far been a limited presence at Western dealer-led art events.

The fair also appeals to increasingly cost-conscious gallery owners who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on booths, travel, shipping, accommodation and entertaining.

“The overall cost is about a fifth of what dealers normally spend,” Cohan said in an interview. Participants will be charged between $5,000 and $20,000 for a virtual “booth.”

“It’s a brilliant idea,” said Anthony McNerney, managing director at the London-and Hong Kong-based gallery, Ben Brown Fine Arts, which is not, as yet, participating in VIP. “It will take time to take off. At first, probably only things that people know will do well, such as editioned sculptures and photographs.”

Ben Brown routinely sells works by photographers such as Candida Hoefer purely on the strength of Internet inquiries and phone calls, McNerney said.

“It’ll probably take a year or so before a Korean or Indonesian collector spends $1 million for a work at a virtual art fair, but there could be anomalies,” McNerney said. “People tend to be quicker to make decisions when using the Internet. At art fairs, visitors look at things and have a think about it.”

Information: http://vipartfair.com/

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at sreyburn@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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