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Australian Art Goes Under the Cyber Hammer

Australian online auction site stuff.com.au will put local art under the hammer in the country's first fine art auction live on the Internet.

The auction will include more than 230 items of Australian contemporary, traditional and Aboriginal art, from artists such as Brett Whiteley, Norman Lindsay, and Sidney Nolan. A small number of European works will also be auctioned.

The pieces range in value from AUS$500 (US $330) to AUS$250,000 (US$165,000), and in order to participate bidders must register as part of a pre-approval process. Once they have registered bidders receive a password and can view a catalogue of the items.

stuff.com.au will team with Australian art industry identities Goodmans Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers and the Tim Olsen Gallery for the public auction, which will be held simultaneously on August 3 from 6 pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on the Internet and live at Sydney's Royal Randwick racecourse. Online bids will be streamed into the sale.

Bidders will log onto a chat room-style site, where they can monitor bids and can see images and catalogue descriptions of the lot on offer. The auction's online interface will be text-based, as Goodmans' general manager John Shiell said there was neither the appropriate bandwidth nor the software to successfully incorporate streaming video.

The entire colour illustrated catalogue of items is already available for view at both the Goodmans and the stuff.com.au Web sites.

Goodmans, which approached stuff.com.au with the idea for this simultaneous auction, sees it as having the potential to draw "new clientele, the up and coming mobile person," according to Shiell.

The event's most expensive piece is Australian artist John Olsen's Five Bells, an eight foot square oil painting of Sydney Harbour that was completed in 1963. As it has never been seen by the public before, Goodman expected "interest from both institutions and major private collectors."

Although higher-priced art has not been the focus of an Internet auction before, van Wyk said that as all of the items have been verified, authenticated and valued, people need not feel they have to be at the auction to know they are bidding on a genuine item.

"We are seeing this auction as a chance to experiment with a low technology risk," said van Wyk. "No one really knows what the response will be, [but] this is an opportunity to experiment with something different, and see if the market's ready for this kind of business."

In a market survey of collectibles auction houses commissioned by Goodmans, 70 percent were either already online or were preparing to make the move.