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NUTS & BOLTS

Fine Art Rentals Take the Unsure Off the Hook

April 03, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

We hear about it every now and then, and we marvel: the old man or woman from, say, Ohio or Connecticut who died in the same house in which he was born.

As Californians, we couldn't be more amazed if we'd heard that Jack Nicholson was about to become a priest. Longevity, permanence, tradition, roots, a sense of long history--none of these ring the bell for us.

We move. And move. And move. We are descended from people who got antsy and fled westward, and now that we have run out of west to flee into, we nurture our peculiar form of wanderlust by sort of vibrating around in the same general area, zipping from new residence to new residence in leased cars we exchange every couple of years.

We rent. And rent. And rent. Furniture, rototillers, pianos, house plants. Ever ready to move westward once again in case a big peninsula or something magically attaches itself to Huntington Beach in the middle of the night. East Coasters like to trace their ancestors to the crew of the Mayflower. We like to brag that we can fit everything we own into the trunk of a Volkswagen.

Need it? Rent it.

But I always figured there were limits. There were certain things, I was sure, that you simply had to buy outright. Golf balls, say, or Big Macs.

But Steve Smith has nearly eroded this illusion of mine. Smith owns a business in Laguna Niguel whose name alone makes the head turn: Fine Art Rentals. It is a business that is in a unique position to thrive in the most highly mobile society on the planet.

Fine Art Rentals, said Smith, exists because of the great human constant, change.

"If people are moving into a new house," he said, "they might be kind of short on cash because the mortgages can be so high. And so they have a big, beautiful home with no art in it. There's nothing on the walls, and it looks bare and unfinished. If they rent art, it makes such a difference. It gives the place a sense of permanence."

Yes, a sense. But Smith apparently knows his market. Sure, people may go against type and stick with their houses for a while, but what about the furnishings? It's no accident that interior designers, furniture makers and carpet and drape manufacturers change their palettes regularly. A house dominated by earth tones, for instance, can be in, out, in, and back out again before the homeowner thinks to do a bit of upgrading.

"Peoples' interiors change more often than they think," Smith said.

A change of art on the walls, he said, can help smooth the transitions. The furniture and drapes may not go together well, but a judicious choice of art can tie the colors together, at least tentatively, until a more cohesive look can be assembled.

Smith, who in addition to his Orange County base has four franchises elsewhere in California, doesn't have a lot of competition in the art rental business.

None of the county's art museums offers an art rental program, and the Orange County Public Library system has no art that can be checked out with a library card.

Likewise, commercial art galleries are unlikely to offer art for rent. Bonnie Montgomery, a representative of the Chemers Gallery in Tustin, said that Chemers has rented art occasionally--and on a very limited basis--in the past, but doesn't do it now. It does not, she said, offer enough of a timely return on the gallery's investment. A gallery, she said, generally would prefer to sell a piece and realize the full profit from it at once, rather than piecemeal over time.

Smith said he can get away with it because of low overhead costs. He operates his gallery out of the second floor of his home and maintains a fairly broad base of clients who continue to come back regularly to exchange old art for new.

His inventory includes approximately 500 pieces by local artists, as well as artists from Europe and New York, at sale prices (he also sells art outright) from about $350 to $1,500. Large works rent for $8 per month; smaller pieces for $5 per month.

There is also a plan through which clients can apply the price of their first three months' rental to the eventual purchase price of the art (and that retail price is routinely lowered after the three months, Smith said).

Most of Smith's clients, he said, keep coming back, not unlike patrons of a lending library. And most of them rent five pieces or more at a time.

But they likely never stop moving. A big part of his business, Smith said, is taken up by people who have their houses on the market and who want to jazz the place up with a little artwork, the better to impress potential buyers.

What the heck. After they sell, they can take all the art back in the trunk of their Volkswagen.

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