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Originally published Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 5:12 AM

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Jury’s still out on Amazon Art

Gallery owners in Seattle and around the world are divided over the new Amazon Art venture, still in beta. Some have embraced it, while at least one longtime dealer says “it doesn’t seem right.”

Special to The Seattle Times

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The summer’s launch of Amazon’s fine-art department might well turn out to be one of the company’s most significant moves. Amazon Art, part of Amazon.com, could transform not only how art is bought and sold, butalso the very perception of art’s relevance to our lives.

Like everything else Amazon does, those changes could be global. It is a tantalizing possibility.

But that is in the future.

Right now the beta version of Amazon Art has run into difficulties.

The art world is far from allergic to online development. You can bid at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions online. Entirely virtual galleries, auction houses, art and antiques e-poriums, and even art fairs have proliferated and begun to prosper.

But Amazon’s move into this territory has been met with widespread suspicion and derision. “It’s a ridiculous joke!” was the response from one blue-chip gallery.

When an Amazon Art dealer offered Monet’s “L’Enfant a la tasse” for $1.45 million, it became a target for hilarity online. (On one article, readers posted parodies of Amazon.com-style consumer reviews, such as, “For as much as I paid I’m a little upset that this isn’t a new painting.”) A widely quoted article by economist Tyler Cowan sported the headline, “Is Amazon Art a doomed venture? Let’s hope so.”

Why the hostility? In part, the secrecy Amazon has maintained around the project encourages suspicion. Direct questions about Amazon Art are met with evasion or a flat “we’re not able to share that information.”

Art dealers who signed up for the site were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. (In fact, getting in touch with Erik Fairleigh, of Amazon’s PR department, was initially difficult; a company operator said his name was not in her directory, and she “could not confirm or deny” his extension.)

When reached, Fairleigh declined to answer questions about the number of employees involved in Amazon Art and who the seller of the Monet was.

He did say Amazon Art had signed up more than five galleries in Seattle and more than 25 in New York.

Amazon has made special efforts to work with gallerists here in its hometown. “When they first made their pitch, they started with us,” is how Seattle gallery owner Bryan Ohno puts it. “Some 30” dealers were invited to company headquarters and told, “We are a subtle and sophisticated city. We’re no slouch.”

Still, not everyone was persuaded to sign up. Longtime gallery owner Francine Seders is one who did not. “It doesn’t seem right,” was her simple explanation.

But about 150 dealers around the world decided it was worth a try. “Why not?” is the attitude of New York dealer Ken Tyburski, owner of DCKT, a contemporary-art gallery. “Let’s try it out,” Ohno says. “Everybody’s trying to figure out how the art world can make a transformation in the digital age. Can we do that and still sell something as personal and unique as a work of art?”

This is the nub of the problem. A painting is quite unlike a toaster. You don’t buy it because you need it. It is not useful. It is not like a book or a movie either; like almost everything else on Amazon.com, books and movies can be judged by the prior approval of other people who have bought them.

With a work of art, you’re out there on your own, and its price so exceeds the intrinsic value of its material components that seems it can be explained only in the most esoteric vocabulary.

It is the vocabulary that many of those cynical — or perhaps we should say anxious — art dealers regard as their specialty. “Buying art is a commitment,” they would have us believe. “You have to establish a relationship with it,” and, most crucially, “it’s not for everyone.”

One local dealer who clearly believes it might be for everyone is Catherine Person, who moved online from her Pioneer Square brick-and-mortar gallery more than two years ago. She regards Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as “an art enthusiast” who has launched his fine-art department out of altruism.

She is excited by the potential new audience for the artists she represents: “I could show at art fairs for the rest of my life and still be seen by less people than look at my Amazon page in one day,” she says.

This is the sort of math that is at the core of Amazon Art’s potential. Amazon boasts 100 million U.S. customers and 200 million worldwide. It sells more than the next 12 most successful Internet retailers combined.

On its busiest day last year it sold more than 300 items per second. This is the success that comes from a near-perfect retail formula: You can get the best product that is available; you can get it quick; and you can get it cheap.

This all comes down to trust. For 100 million Americans, a desire for reliable retail clearly outweighs any misgivings about Big Retail. If that trust can be extended into the realm of fine art, then the possibilities are enormous.

Works of art can provide the most stimulating, satisfying and life-enhancing experiences you will find anywhere. They encourage new ways of thinking and breed sophistication. If even a tiny percentage of Amazon customers get a taste for that kind of experience, then the company might well claim to have changed the world.

Robert Ayers: robertayers@mac.com

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