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Arts

First online art fair struggles to impress collectors

The VIP Art Fair, an online gallery, is raising a lot of interest - and questions. Is zooming in on a digital image of a painting enough for collectors to decide to spend millions of euros?

A virtual guest in front of a work on display at the VIP Art Fair

Virtual guests give online viewers a sense of the works' real dimensions

Thomas Zander relaxes at his computer and clicks through a virtual exhibition. Even though he's at an art fair, the Cologne-based gallery owner doesn't have a chic suit on and isn't walking around with a glass of champagne to toast collectors.

The virtual marketplace can do without glamour, clinking glasses and small talk - and even without the original artworks. Eight photographs by American artist Trevor Paglen hang as pixel files on a digital gallery wall.

"We looked explicitly for an artist that would work well in this medium. Photography is just a lot better suited to being displayed online than paintings," said Zander as he scrolled from picture to picture. "If you find a work especially interesting, you can download the background information."

View in private

VIP doesn't stand for "very important person" when it comes to this art fair. Rather, it can mean "view in private," or even "view in pyjamas." Leaving the house is unnecessary. Buyers with questions about the photographs Zander is showing can start a chat with him or even trade Skype contact information.

During the VIP fair's run from January 22 to 30, gallery owners also have the chance to negotiate and discuss with buyers in private chatrooms. The chatrooms are free from intruders and can display a gallery's entire archive if so desired.

But it comes at a price for collectors. For the first two days of the fair, they had to pay $100 to be eligible to buy pieces. Since then, the fee to purchase has been $20. For those who just want to browse and not buy, registration as a visitor is free.

Thomas Zander's gallery at the VIP art fair

Online guests can browse through Thomas Zander's gallery

In contrast to conventional art fairs, galleries at VIP change their offerings every couple of days. New image files go up, and other pictures head into the archive. In turn, users can zoom in on details, save favorite works and share what they liked most with other shoppers via Facebook or Twitter.

A simulated exhibition visitor appears in front of the pictures displayed at the fair to give buyers a sense of the work's proportions.

"Some pictures on sale are up to five meters high. If there's no figure in front of them, it's hard to understand just how big the work is," explained Thomas Zander, who is one of three exhibitors from Germany.

Big backers

The fair's founding galleries include big names and global players in the art world like David Zwirner, Larry Gagosian and Max Hetzler. They're selling works by artists including Neo Rauch, Damien Hirst and Louise Bourgeois. Zander views the combination of art and the Internet rather critically in general, and if the club of 139 participants hadn't been so exclusive, he probably wouldn't have joined in at all.

Damien Hirst's Sensation (2003),

Damien Hirst's "Sensation" (2003), on display at the VIP fair by L & M Arts

"A lot of people buy according to the name and not according to how the work looks. At auctions, many people just flip through a catalogue and then bid by phone without ever seeing the work," he said.

At the same time, gallery owners who like to focus on offering clients know-how and advice sit in empty rooms, waiting for guests. That's why so much money goes into art fairs. Making art available online can be an addition to traditional fairs, but it likely won't replace them entirely.

Even though gallery owners avoid transportation costs by presenting their work online, the VIP Art Fair carries its own price. Depending on how many works the galleries want to present, they have to pay between $5,000 and $20,000.

Love at first sight?

Around 50 of the more than 8,000 pieces available cost more than a million dollars. Barbara Engelbach, acting director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, shakes her head at the thought of spending so much money without ever having seen the original. She says she would never buy works for the museum's collection online.

"We have a great responsibility, and we can only fulfill it by seeing the works in the original," she said.

Especially when it comes to the brush strokes or color nuances of a painting, the curator is skeptical that online reproductions can satisfy collectors. Nonetheless, she sees the online fair as a valuable information pool.

"It can be interesting for people that are interested in art, but probably would never go to an art fair. Here you can be anonymous and stay home but still browse through the galleries and find out about artists and their works," Engelbach noted.

VIP Art Fair logo

The first run of the fair has been plagued by technical problems

Technical setbacks

Just how the experiment will turn out is an open question. The first few days were rather disappointing. Instead of chatting with buyers, many gallery owners spent their time waiting on support because of technical problems.

Thomas Zander's gallery hasn't received an overwhelming number of clicks, and he hadn't made any sales by the end of the fair's opening days.

The server hasn't been able to keep up with the high number of visitors from across the world, explained the event's organizers. For buyers, that's a problem not just in terms of viewing the works. Many may wonder just whether they should trust their money to an overloaded database.

Author: Sabine Oelze / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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