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HEARD ON THE BEAT

Art of the Deal Hits the Web--Fine Art, That Is

March 31, 1997|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The few businesses that manage to make money on the Web tend to sell items that are essentially the same no matter where you buy them, such as books or cars. And they lure customers almost entirely on the basis of price.

But is it possible to survive on the Web selling something that is unique by definition and inherently expensive? Fine art, for example? John Hazeltine, who formerly administered the art program at Mission San Juan Capistrano, aims to find out.

Hazeltine, 52, recently launched a Web site that sells art only the well-heeled could consider. The works sell for a minimum of $3,000, and the most expensive item among the 300 listings is a Norman Rockwell original priced at $180,000.

The Traditional Fine Arts Online site, at http://www.tfaoi.com, is devoted to "American representational" art, that is, works by American artists that portray subjects in a realistic fashion.

"When you put it on the wall, you know which side is up," explained Hazeltine, who lives in Cowan Heights.

Fine art and the Web might seem a strange fit, but in some ways Hazeltine's plan makes sense. Shopping for art, he said, is normally a haphazard experience. Buyers can look in galleries, and in magazines, but typically only see a fraction of the merchandise available even within specific eras and categories.

Selling art can be even more troublesome, he said, because galleries have limited space for displaying works and can demand steep commissions. Placing ads in magazines can cost as much as $5,000, even if the work itself is priced at just $10,000. As a result, there are vast quantities of art that owners would like to sell, but buyers never see.

The Internet, because it is capable of reaching so many people at such little effort and cost, could overcome these obstacles. Hazeltine charges nothing for listing a work and collects a 15% commission if the piece sells.

There is no limit to the number of works he can include on his site, and each has an online picture. Shoppers can scan through an alphabetic listing of artists and express interest in buying a piece by sending e-mail or making a phone call.

Hazeltine is still waiting for his first sale, but he is using the connections he made at the mission to attract clients and publicize the site. His son-in-law, an engineer at Apple Computer, did the computer work on the site.

"We don't expect to earn a profit for a couple years," Hazeltine said. Even that might be a bit optimistic, given the frustrating experiences of the thousands of other online entrepreneurs.

Greg Miller covers high technology for The Times. He can be reached at (714) 966-7830 and at greg.miller@latimes.com.

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