Some people can sense money the way others with bunions predict rain.
That's especially tru these days in the art world, where a growth industry of various services -- art registries, art consultants, art credit cards, over-the-telephone appraisals, mail-order catalogues and other publications -- has sprung up to "aid" collectors, dealers and insurance companies. The ideas often sound plausible, even needed.
But while some companies do provide valuable services, other ventures are questionable, or downright impractical. Others may fail for lack of financial backing, proper equipment or an understanding of how the art world operates. Among the new services:
*Art registries. Collectors have their works photographed or marked indelibly, a process that would greatly assist police and insurance companies in recovery efforts should the pieces be lost or stolen. A work could be identified immediately, and a damaged object compared with the photograph to facilitate a claim.
Sounds logical, but a variety of entrepreneurs have tried this, and most have flopped. Some "registrars" were actually criminals.because many collectors don't want marks placed on their objects or tags glued to them. Another major problem: there is no standard method of identification used in the trade; the stored information is useless if other people don't know about it or use it themselves.
"Everyone needs to join up in order to make this sort of thing work," says Charles Koczka, a U.S. Customs agent who specializes in art theft. "You need to have one central data bank."
*Industry-wide publications listing stolen artworks.
Law enforcement officials and insurance companies have long maintained that art thefts would be greatly lessened were it not so easy to recirculate questionable works back into the art market, and a central source of this information might be to everyone's benefit.
The FBI has a computer listing of reported stolen works, but it does not make this information available to the trade. The Art Dealers Association circulates a listing of recently stolen works to its 90 members, but that is a small percentage of the art world. The International Foundation for Art Research has a somewhat larger membership to which it sends out its monthly newsletter of thefts, Stolen Art Alert -- but neither it nor the Art Dealers Association has a computer to store and access information on certain works, artists or patterns of theft. Ronald Feldman, a dealer in contemporary art who tried to market such a newsletter in the late 1970s, demise: "They were generally unhappy with the idea. If you have a publication like this, it becomes harder to launder works that the dealers know are possibly stolen . . ."
*Over-the-telephone appraisals of words of art. ArtScan and Telepraisal charge $20 and $30, respectively, to provide estimates of a work's value -- far less than an appraiser will usually ask. However, the fact that they don't actually see the work to check its authenticity, condition and medium -- they must rely on the owner's knowledge and ability to describe what he has -- lessens the value of the appraisal.
"Doing a good appraisal is a lot more than just looking up a price in a book or in a computer," says Deborah Hearn, manager of Sotheby's appraisal department. And Frank Davis, president of the Boston-based New England Appraisers Association, maintains that "you have to start with the actual object. You can't appraise a work by looking at a photograph of it."
The government, however, has no objections to basing appraisals on photographs, according to Jeffrey Schutzman, manager of the Valuation Group in the New York City office of the IRS. "We can't look at all the objects we receive appraisals for, because there are so many of them, and we can't send our agents everywhere. "We, too, have to rely on photographs and written reports."
ArtScan and Telepraisal also offer referrals and information on upcoming auctions to clients -- services that are open to less skepticism than the appraisals.
*Art credit cards. An art credit card, such as the one ArtMaster is currently attempting to market, would make it easier and faster to purchase art -- no waiting for a bank to approve a loan. However, virtually no major galleries currently accept even the more mainstream credit cards. Says dealer Ivan Karp, "I'm not giving up 3 percent of what the work sells for to some company," a sentiment echoed by many others.
A prospective ArtMaster cardholder might find himself paying a $45 membership fee to own a piece of plastic that no one will honor.
*Art financing services. Financing by such companies as General Art Equities, International Fine Art Consultants, Rosenthal Art Equities and Sotheby's makes sense, as banks are often reluctant to make loans for such fickle commodities as works of art. But the high interest rates some companies charge -- from 3 percent above the prime rate to 24 percent (Rosenthal Art Equities also demands a certain percentage of the profit when the object is sold again) -- may make bank requirements look attractive again to collectors and dealers.
*Mail-order art catalogues. Art dealers, museums, and such companies as American Express, Christie's Contemporary Art, Franklin Mint and many others send a flurry of mail-order art catalogues across the country, usually at Christmas, offering decorative objects, prints and posters. It's a perfectly honorable way to do business -- dealers send out catalogues to reach new customers, and museums view these orders as a way of increasing their revenues. But others may periodically use the mail system to defraud the public.
A good rule of thumb: Items that are offered tend to be as good as whoever is selling them.