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The Wave of the Future for Pieces From the Past

Dealers and collectors say the Internet is beginning to change the antiques industry, but it's too early to tell whether a revolution is in store.

May 04, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles interior designer B.J. Peterson is testing her wings as an antiques shopper on the Internet. The ability to search the entire world is almost irresistible.

"We've checked it out, but it has some drawbacks," said the designer, whose showroom is located on upscale Melrose Place. "You really need to see and feel antiques to know they are authentic, and right now there seems to be a lot of dealing that's not on the highest level."

Although she hasn't bought anything yet, Peterson believes the Internet will be useful both for the professional designer and the consumer searching for antiques.

Antiques collectors want to hold, shake, sniff and examine every detail of an object. The very thought of them simply pointing and clicking on a Web site photo to browse and even make a major purchase defies tradition. But as Peterson observed, cyber-antiquing has already taken off, "and I know it's exploding as we speak."

More buyers are jumping in and buying expensive antiques online daily, according to Jim Tucker, director of the Antiques and Collectibles Dealers Assn. in Huntersville, N.C. "It's definitely happening, since the start-up of EBay. There's no way to measure online buying in numbers--it's still in a sorting-out period--but it has already changed the business."

And while there's a certain irony in turning to cyberspace to purchase a piece of the past, it is already being celebrated as the cool way to shop.

"Roaming the world for rare antiques is not only exhausting, it's old-fashioned," proclaims the current issue of House & Garden magazine in a salute to digital antiquing.

"If you're going to collect antiques in the 21st century, you've got to be Internet-savvy," says Barry Weber, president of the New York antiques jewelry dealer Edith Weber & Associates. "If you're not, it will be like trying to continue with the telegraph when everybody else is talking on the telephone."

Weber will moderate a panel discussion on the subject on Friday at the Los Angeles Antique Show in Santa Monica.

"We will explore what happens when the dealer can bring his shop into your computer screen 24-7," he said.

Weber's showroom went online five years ago, and he has watched the trickle-down effect of technology. This is the year everything has clicked into an international electronic marketplace. Not only traditional collectors, but also new buyers are surfing their way into the online world.

Technology's Impact Makes Itself Felt

And while online antiquing is unlikely to replace brick-and-mortar showrooms, it's a concept that is starting to shake up a tradition-bound antiques world.

"Today more and more people are comfortable with Web site shopping," said San Francisco antiques dealer Dan Stein, who organized the Friday panel.

After a slow start, online commerce in general reached something like a critical mass last year, Stein noted, citing the success of EBay.com at http://www.ebay.com, one of the Internet's biggest trading companies. The auction site now boasts more than 3.3 million items in 2,500 categories, and last year EBay acquired the 134-year-old Butterfield & Butterfield auction house. .

Internet sales for most high-end dealers don't account for more than 10% of their business, according to Stein. But the potential--opening up the entire world as a customer base--is alluring.

"We have proved that people will buy art and antiques at a fairly high level, such as books ranging from $100 to $80,000, and any number of American antiques such as a Pennsylvania tall-case clock for $57,000," said Chris Jussel of PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" fame and now senior vice president of Sotheby's Online Auctions Associate programs.

He oversees sothebys.com at http://www.sotheby.com, launched in January 1999, which presents art and antiques from more than 4,900 dealers worldwide in an ongoing auction. The Web site, he said, has proved that people will log on, browse, bid and buy, attracted by the reputation of Sotheby's and its ability to link dealers.

"Any object you look at online has been seen, examined, authenticated, cataloged and offered for sale by an expert with significant experience in the field."

Convenience With a Couple of Caveats

The Internet is equally attractive for shoppers. Instead of trudging from store to store looking for a Queen Anne armchair, today's consumer, with the click of a mouse, has access to thousands of showrooms, auctions and flea markets. But beware--that can mean a bunch of junk from the attic, right along with Queen Anne.

Clearly the everyday consumer needs to be equipped with more than a modem and a mouse, and experts warn of the danger of getting carried away by the flavor of the month.

"There are plenty of mistakes to be made with Internet buying. You have to be careful, and you must do research," explained Scot Levitt, director of the fine arts department at Butterfield. He oversees a Great Collection site on the EBay home page, which compiles antiques and fine art from antiques dealers worldwide.

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