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Read our mention in OMNI Magazine from back in 1993!


OMNI Magazine (September 1993)

The ARTS column by Paul McCarthy (Page 18)

GOING ONCE: Computer technology puts art on the auction block

Some people in the art-marketing community feel they've seen the future, and it's spelled E-L-E-C-T-R-O-N-I-C. They foresee a day when collectors will purchase art much as many people already shop via online networks.

Ask Bob Chapman of the Ambassador Graphics & Wildlife Gallery in North Charleston, South Carolina, who for a year has operated the Earth Art electronic bulletin board system. Potential purchasers can dial in 24 hours a day, download wildlife art images and make a credit card purchase of the print. Chapman's board has already paid for itself and he's expecting art dealers to jump on the electronic bandwagon. "You can't visit any other gallery at two in the morning." he says.

Even at staid old Sotheby's in New York, Joseph Williams, vice president for worldwide information systems, says he's open to new ideas. Sotheby's already accepts some 25 to 30 percent of its bids by phone and fax. "Remote bidding also has some appeal, and Sotheby's has even built a prototype for worldwide use. This technology will only get better as desktop telephone video begins to mature." says Williams. Sotheby's has been putting fine art images onto videodisc for the past three years, and, Williams says, it's not inconceivable that they would put them onto CD-ROM for international distribution.

Fine art investors can already subscribe to the I*SYS online system from Centrox Corporation. The New York company, according to technical director John Nally, currently carries more than 600,000 images online and the text from some 5,000 auction catalogs - a whopping 34 gigabytes of information.

With the proper software, clients worldwide can dial in to track and evaluate fine art. The database contains the going prices for artists, says Nally, so it can assist appraisers, buyers and banks that lend against artwork, and at the same time tout future sales. It even permits the downloading of digitized images - water colors, prints, photographs, sculptures and drawings.

I*SYS developer Tom Dackow, now president of Q Systems, a New York image-database design company, has also computerized the Art Loss Register in London. Art theft victims register stolen works in the database, including images of the works, which permits auction houses and other buyers to ask for computer searches to compare potentially "hot" sale items to the Register. Dackow says there were nearly 300 recoveries since 1991.

The New York arm of the Register is run by Anna Kisluk at the International Foundation for Art Research. She says her database contains about 40,000 items with a minimum value of $1,000. Her most memorable case began with a call from the Miami office of the FBI in 1991. A work titled AURORA by "a guy called Ruben" was on the market for $3.5 million. Did she have a match? She did. It so happens that an oil sketch titled DAWN by Peter Paul Rubens was stolen in Spain in 1985. "It was recovered and is back in Spain" says Kisluk.

Dackow sees other uses for computers, too. "People are talking about a positive register," a database of artworks with their provenances. It would keep track of who previously owned the art and whether it had gone through legitimate channels. Surprisingly, Dackow is not an enthusiast of online auctions. He believes buying fine art online is unlike trading stocks, where purchasers know what they're getting. "The assessment of the value of a work has a lot to do with face-to-face confrontation," he says.

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