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A detail from Barbara Astman's "Dancing With Che" diptych

Being a perfectionist means, among other things, living in a state of perpetual stress. Yet even the famously finicky Toronto art dealer Jane Corkin admits her stress level has come close to the distress threshold in recent days as she's prepared for the opening of VIP Art Fair, an unprecedented online-only sale of art by almost 140 prestige galleries from 30 countries.

VIP usually stands for "very important person" and certainly there'll be some of those at the fair (www.vipartfair.com), which begins Saturday morning and runs 24 hours a day through Jan. 30. In this instance, VIP is short for "viewing in private," an allusion to the virtual booths the galleries hope customers will visit from the comfort of their ski chalets in Davos and oceanfront homes in Maui. The galleries have paid anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 (U.S.) each for the booths, and Corkin's is one of them.

The veteran gallerist is the only Canadian dealer in the fair, which has enlisted the participation of some of the biggest names in the international art biz - Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman, Bruno Bischofberger, Cheim & Read and Thaddaeus Ropac, among them. Together, they're posting close to 9,000 works for sale, including 2,300 paintings.

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"Do you want to know how many nights I've been up to 1:30 uploading stuff and that sort of thing?" she says with a laugh that sounds at once weary and frantic. "And how are we going to run a 24-hour booth? Because this is an international event and there's going to be clients from Asia, Russia, Europe. We don't have enough staff to man it! You don't ever want to be at dinner!"

Still, she admits, "it's a great privilege to be asked." The asker was James Cohan, an art dealer with offices in Manhattan and Shanghai who concocted the art fair idea three years ago with Internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren. Cohan saw the virtual format as a way for gallerists to show and sell their wares without having to pay the tens of thousands of dollars commanded by actual fairs, not to mention such ancillary costs as shipping, travel, insurance, catering, bar bills and hotel accommodation. Moreover, the fair could attract a new collector demographic: tech-savvy and computer-comfortable, younger, affluent customers.

Corkin says she was invited to come aboard "a long time ago." But like most dealers - and auctioneers, for that matter - she was wary of selling high-quality art online. Clients, too, wondered about buying work they (or their condition experts) couldn't inspect physically. "Did I say, 'What a great idea; I'm in,' on the first phone call?" Corkin laughs. "No, I did not. Do you want to know how many times they had to call me before I said yes?"

Today, though, Corkin's a believer. "It's an incredibly seductive way to look at a lot of interesting art. It's all in front of you. You can sit in your nice chair with a glass of wine or whatever and have a civilized time of it."

Entrance to the site is free - but if you're serious about buying and you haven't secured an advance invitation from one of the participating galleries, you'll have to pay $100 - good for the first two days; the fee for the remainder of the fair drops to $20 thereafter - to see the price guides and interact with gallery staff.

Once inside the fair "grounds," you can click on a gallery to see what's for sale. There's a zoom allowing close inspection and multiple viewpoints, plus access to artist CVs, translation services, technical data, videos and studio tours. A humanoid figure appears alongside each art work to indicate scale.

While some stuff will be priced in the mid-four figures, heavy-duty pieces by well-known art stars will also be on the block.

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Zurich's Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, for instance, has a large Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas selling for $5-million; a dog sculpture by Japanese hot-shot Yoshitomo Nara is being offered by New York's Marianne Boesky Gallery for $650,000. Corkin's wares include works by Barbara Astman, Iain Baxter and Thaddeus Holownia, but of her 90 or so offerings, 70 will be viewable only by "best clients" - the VIPs.

While traditional hands-on collectors are largely expected to browse the event, Corkin notes that some may be sufficiently intrigued to contact her after the fair, maybe even arrange a visit to her space in Toronto's Distillery District. "I think this is really happening," she says. "I think this is really 21st century."

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