World’s First Online Art Fair Draws Fire as Top Works Go Unsold

VIP Art Fair
A website screen of a dealer's virtual ``booth'' at the VIP Art Fair. The world's first online international show of contemporary art took place in January 2011. Source: VIP Art Fair via Bloomberg

Works by Francis Bacon and Richard Prince went unsold as the world’s first online contemporary art fair suffered from problems such as a jammed chat system.

“It was expensive and the things that were meant to make it special didn’t work,” said Gordon Veneklasen, director of the New York-based Michael Werner Gallery. “We were unhappy.”

The VIP Art Fair, which closed on Jan. 30, was billed as an unprecedented event where collectors could access 2,000 works and connect with more than 130 dealers from 30 countries. Some collectors are increasingly willing to buy at online auctions: 28 percent of Christie’s International clients bid online.

After the fair opened on Jan. 22, its “chat with gallery” function froze. Three days later, the instant-messaging system, giving VIP Pass-holders access to dealers’ private rooms of works, was replaced by an e-mail “contact gallery” function.

Werner’s virtual booth contained the 2009 bronze “Lumpy Figure” by the U.K. artist Thomas Houseago, whose work was sought-after at last year’s Art Basel, Frieze and FIAC fairs. The sculpture was unsold at $225,000.

“At a fair, it would have sold in a minute,” Veneklasen said. “We’re going to try to ask for our money back.” Werner had one of the larger VIP booths, priced about $20,000.

Artworks on the site were viewed 7.65 million times by visitors from 196 countries, Amy Wentz of the New York-based public relations consultants Ruder Finn said in an e-mail yesterday.

“We consider it a huge success,” co-organizer James Cohan said in a telephone interview. “We had some technical glitches, but the model worked. We’ll be doing it again next year.”

White Cube

The event attracted big-name dealers such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, White Cube and L & M Arts, as well as many emerging galleries.

“It wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped,” Alissa Friedman, a director at the New York-based Salon 94 gallery, said. “Most of the sales at a fair happen in the opening weekend. The technical faults sapped all the energy out of it. Losing the live chat made the fair function like a website.”

Salon 94 had no confirmed sales. There were no takers for two 2010 Richard Prince “T-shirt” paintings, priced at $85,000 each.

“We were disappointed by the technical glitches,” said Borkur Arnarson, founder of the Reykjavik-based gallery i8. “They turned off half the fair. The chat feature would have allowed people to look in our back room. Instead we had to keep changing our booth.” The gallery, which represents Olafur Eliasson and Roni Horn, had no VIP sales.

New York Dealers

VIP was developed by New York-based dealers James and Jane Cohan and Internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren.

“If you have experienced delays,” the founders said in an e-mail to privileged pass-holders on Jan. 25, “error messages or slow processing speed while visiting the VIP Art Fair in the first two days, please accept our sincere apologies.” Anyone who paid $100 to enter for the first two days has been refunded, said Cohan.

More than 50 works were priced in excess of $1 million. The Marlborough Gallery couldn’t find a buyer for Francis Bacon’s 1989 “Man at Washbasin,” which had been tagged at $18 million at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair in December.

Rudolf Stingel’s 2002 work, “Die Birne,” priced between $500,000 and $1 million by the London dealer Sadie Coles HQ, was the most expensive of the confirmed sales, Ruder Finn said.

“There were a lot of galleries trying to sell inventory,” said collector Amir Shariat, chief executive of Auctor Capital Partners Ltd., who was looking for emerging artists and didn’t buy anything. “The fair has a future. It needs to sort out the technical issues and beef up the amount of new art.”


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

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