Like a relay race, some Internet commerce plans get handed off a few times before they cross the line to become real businesses.

Art.com was like that. The Web-only art retailer, based in North Carolina, was founded by two college students nearly a decade ago. It spent six years operating under another name, AllWalls.com, before becoming the fourth owner of the Art.com domain name in 2001 -- and the only one to turn a profit.

Now Art.com employs 200 people who toil in a warehouse in Raleigh, and its owners have decided to branch into the high-priced world of original art. Co-founders Joshua Chodniewicz and Michael Marston, both 30, won't disclose revenue but say they built their "highly profitable" dot-com without taking any venture capital. They are considering selling stock to the public now that Wall Street's appetite for Internet investments has rebounded.

Their site draws nearly 5 million visitors a month. Tractor-trailers filled with artwork leave the 60,000-square-foot warehouse every few hours for the airport. Art.com's facility, meanwhile, has been reengineered to spit out custom-framed posters and prints on an assembly line modeled after the mass-customization computer line created by Dell.

"Five years ago, you saw me putting the posters in my Jeep and licking stamps to put on them beside the handwritten labels," said Chodniewicz, the chief executive. "Thank God I am not doing that now."

So far, Art.com's success has come from mostly inexpensive reproductions and framing services. But last week, it launched a more ambitious online marketplace for paintings and photography.

What's unusual is that Art.com is inviting artists to showcase and sell their original work on Art.com -- in many cases without charging artists any commissions. The owners are gambling that they will be able to sell other services if they can turn their site into a supermall for art.

Art.com faces many challenges, including competition from other would-be art sellers on the Web. To date, none has succeeded in becoming the Amazon.com of art.

The site's biggest competitors, though, likely will be the thousands of offline art galleries, where experts provide the kind of hand-holding and pep talks often required to sell high-priced art. The masses have embraced buying products online that they can't first hold in their hands, because the items are identical to what they can find in their shopping malls. It's still unclear how many art buyers will want to go that route for a one-of-a-kind item. Art.com's founders say, however, that they can take advantage of the fact that the world of original art is highly fragmented, reflecting the whims of those thousands of dealers and galleries that represent tens of thousands of professional artists.

"We are going to change the way the world finds art. Our purpose is to simplify the buying and selling of art," Chodniewicz said grandly. "Currently it is a complex and frightening process, and out of reach to many."

The idea is to provide artists with a few Web display tools for free, then sell them advanced services, such as preparing their images for limited edition reprints. Artists, for example, can display 16 original works on Art.com for free. People who want to buy those must negotiate directly with the artist through an e-mail link that Art.com provides.

Artists can pay $50 a year to display up to 96 images. If an artist wants to offer limited edition reprints, Art.com will handle the printing through an on-demand printing service it launched last week. Fees vary for that service.

The original art section is so new that it has only 800 images so far, far fewer than the 100,000 available in the prints and posters area. Most of the 800 are available as high-quality reproductions rather than one-of-a-kind originals. Kya Sainsbury-Carter, Art.com business development director, said many artists are still in the process of submitting their original works. To block pornography and possible fraud, Art.com screens submissions.

Among those showcasing originals at Art.com is Lisa Grubb, a New York pop artist whose paintings suggest Andy Warhol with a funny bone. A professional artist for 20 years who also owns her own gallery, Grubb said she thinks Art.com is doing artists a favor by offering them wider exposure than they can get from their own Web sites.

"The only people who aren't going to like this are the galleries that have to pay rent and electricity and have limited viewing space," said Grubb. "But I think it's the wave of the future."

Chad Maxwell, a North Carolina painter of still life, said he is preparing 16 images to offer as limited editions through Art.com's print-on-demand service. The site contracted with a New York printer to make high-quality reprints one at a time when people order them. The service offers lower rates and requires less time than if he had to negotiate with printers on his own, Maxwell said: "I think it will help the artists spend more time painting and less time doing all the print reproduction work."

Art.com has a short, colorful history. The domain name originally belonged to a consulting firm whose corporate initials spelled ART, but it sold the name to a suburban Chicago framing company for $450,000 in 1998. A year later, the framing company sold its entire Web retailing operation to Getty Images, an image wholesaler that was hoping to branch into consumer sales. Then came the dot-com bust, and Getty couldn't make a go of it, especially since it had paid more than $100 million for the Art.com retail business.

When Getty Images killed its consumer Web division in 2001, it sold the Art.com name and other assets to Chodniewicz and Marston. They had been slogging away in relative obscurity, trying to make their custom framing and printing operation more efficient. They wouldn't disclose what they paid for Art.com.

If Art.com succeeds in its goal creating the premier Web site for art, it will be thanks in part to the persistence of its two founders, who have been chums since their kindergarten days in New Jersey. The duo decided to sell art online after a memorable dinner in 1994, while they were college juniors. At a local diner, they spent hours drafting a list of all the things they thought might sell on the Internet. Art was third, after books and music. Since they figured the "big boys" would go after books and music, they chose art.

Selling art online turned out to be a lot harder than books or music, but both say they consider it just a matter of time before the Web makes the once-exclusive world more accessible to everyone.

Art.com lets site visitors rate the art they see, and will display original artwork based partly on how well it is rated by the public.

"We simply provide the platform for the democratization of art," Chodniewicz said. "We let consumers choose what is good and what is bad."

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.