Interview with Thierry Ehrmann, founder and CEO of www.artprice.com
AFN/Vernissage: This is an Artfacts.Net and Vernissage.tv interview with Thierry Ehrmann, founder and CEO of www.artprice.com Hello Mr. Ehrmann.
It is said that you received your IT merits by providing services for "minitel", the successful french videotex system, and then moved on to operate databases for juridical and art market information. As far as we know you studied law and theology, how is the connection to IT?
Thierry Ehrmann: First of all, I think that the Internet is a unique adventure in the history of mankind. You were talking about theology: the Internet could be understood as a metaphor of the divine; if not even as the divine itself. We are pionneers of the Internet; we started in 1987, when we were only 50,000 in the world. This was at the very beginning of the Internet; the World Wide Web did not yet exist. I think that the Internet is both an economic and a spiritual adventure. It also links to juridical knowledge, because it draws new borders, and redefines the global village of McLuhan.
So, there is this reflection on the one hand, and on the other, it is an ensemble that organises the knowledge of mankind; we are industrialists of knowledge, we organise knowledge, and the Internet allows us to penetrate the deep layers and to pass on this knowledge. It is a bit as if the myth of Alexandria's Great Library was reborn.
AFN/Vernissage: So there is a spiritual dimension as well... But what is the connection to the Minitel?
Thierry Ehrmann: Minitel is the ancestor of the Internet, it was a vision we had in Europe about a central server and millions of small terminals - much simpler than PCs - allowing to access knowledge in a very simple way. It was exactly the same path. And often our American friends tell us "it is extraordinary: you foretold the story of the Internet, 20 years in advance".
AFN/Vernissage: www.artprice.com was founded 1997 and is, in comparison to the other known auction price databases, relatively young. Can you tell us, why you decided to enter this competitive market?
Thierry Ehrmann: The question is simple. The Server Group, of all time, has been looking for global markets, and we got very quickly interested in the art market. The Internet is global, and the art market is the oldest market in the world. And this specific market needed information, a certain transparency.
Artprice is a great adventure. We acquired around thirty documentary-collections companies from all around the world. We wanted to embrace the whole time period from the 17th century to these days, and it was really an exhausting work we had to do: looking at these hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and catalogues, we normalized, standardized the art market. We had to manage almost one million biographies, around ten million art works and to extract from the documents the meaning, the story, of each of them. This is the reason why we went to buy knowledge in the United States, in France, in Switzerland, in Germany, etc. And the purchase of these great documentary collections - among other things, collection inventories - made it possible to constitute the greatest database in the world. We travelled the world for six years in order to collect this old knowledge of several centuries. About 40 to 50 million had to be invested in this mission.
AFN/Vernissage: www.artprice.com is said to be the greatest auction database with the most comprehensive econometrical tools, but it is also mentioned in reviews that it lacks images. We've heard that this is due to copyright restrictions in France. First of all we would like to know if you think this is a problem and, if yes, did you ever thought of leaving the country to operate more freely?
Thierry Ehrmann: First of all, the picture problem. I teach copyright law in France, so I know the problem very well. By the way, it is not only a French problem, but also a European one and an American one. Copyright issues in the US are very similar to those we face here. It is now clear that the American legislator, just like the European, is thinking about a change of copyright laws in regard to the Internet. We would have the capacity - if necessary - to move to the United States or to another European country if there was a favorable legislation regarding the use of pictures. But these days, no North-American or European country agrees to the use of pictures without preliminary copyright agreement.
Copyright enables all the beneficiaries in the world to survive; no gallerist, no artist would agree to give away his copyright for free. The problem is almost the same everywhere in the world. This is why the art world should get together in order to define new global rules of copyright with regard to the Internet.
AFN/Vernissage: But do you try to tackle this issue by contending with the European Union, which is said to be so strict in comparison to the United States?
Thierry Ehrmann: The Server Group is present in the whole world, and there would be no problem to change the location if necessary. But the copyright problem is not fundamentally different anywhere else.
I think that the European community is, among others, looking into this issue, and this year, we might even be positively surprised.
AFN/Vernissage: www.artprice.com is one of the most visible web sites for art information, it is indexed in google.news; lots of www.artprice.com charts are printed in newspapers and journals; www.artprice.com is the only auction price database that offers an affiliate program and in the end has a very competitive pricing. What role does marketing play for you to professionally conduct business?
Thierry Ehrmann: Marketing is essential. Until now, the art market was made up of initiates, of "insiders" and their victims. Nowadays, anybody can enter a gallery with a www.artprice.com-subscription and benefit from a sum of information that we did not have at all 20 years ago. There is a real revolution going on in the history of art: people who do not necessarily possess a big fortune, but who want to start [collecting], can now enter a gallery with an incredible sum of information at their disposal.
The pricing of subscriptions is very important for us. Furthermore, in the competition, we also use Google with whom we are partners in order to be mentioned in both Google News and Google. We have permanently between four and five million indexations, and this is very important. We have machine rooms which are exclusively dedicated to Google.
AFN/Vernissage: So the subscription pricing is very important in order to guarantee the acces to the art market and of its opening.
Thierry Ehrmann: Absolutely, it is very important.
AFN/Vernissage: And marketing is the tool to make this service known to the largest number?
Thierry Ehrmann: We have to take into consideration that the art market has gone through a revolution. In the post-war years, there were 500,000 collectors, and now we are dealing with 50 million nascent hard-consumer. So the art market - in opposition to what could be expected - is not experiencing a time of speculation. But there is a growing number of buyers. From 1990 to date, the number of buyers in the whole world was multiplied by twelve. With this in mind, we needed to "conjoin" with our market; and the technique is all about slowly lowering the prices so that everybody, even the simplest people, can access the information we offer about the art market.
AFN/Vernissage: The pricing and the marketing thus contribute to the democratisation and the opening of the market.
But talking about marketing: Most of your competitors actively try to be physically present at art events throughout the world. Mostly to seek advertising partners among the galleries at art fairs. In the last year you've introduced a shop system for dealers where they can advertise their stock. Why do you restrict your marketing purely to media presence? Why don't you try to find clients on the fairs?
Thierry Ehrmann: There are two aspects. First of all, indeed, we want to be closer to our clients. We will be present at the great international meetings. We'd rather go to biennials for example; rather than contemporary art fairs. These days, we prefer to be the patron of biennials because of the absence of commerce and because of their original vision.
It is true that on the other hand, we have a very powerful marketing on the Internet, but we are going to orientate more and more in the direction of fairs and salons which still represent another vision of the art market. It is a natural evolution. In the course of the last five years, there has been an explosion in the number of fairs and exhibitions in the world.
We will follow this movement, but we will not forget that the world is big; and that in the last year, www.artprice.com had 18 billion requests on its "artists" databank; so if you are already in the Internet, you will need a presence in all the search engines. And we have teams for this, engineers who, day and night, ensure our presence so that everybody has access to the latest information in every second, no matter where he finds himself on this planet.
The classic business model for auction databases is to sell access. Lately we've seen web sites providing access to auction results free of charge. This is due to the auction houses' aggressive marketing policy to publish sales announcements and results online and offering third parties free access to their digital data. How do you cope with this development and do you see a future for subscription-based content?
We work with more than 2,900 auction houses, auctioneers. We know - and have known for practically 200 years - that the difficulty for auction houses consists in the fact that they never managed to work together. There are very few associations of auctioneers; each of these has a lot of personality and does not manage to fusion with another. We have a global consolidation of information where we add layers of intelligence, of research and of historians dealing with this information.
The fact that Christie's
put their results online does not cause us any problems. If someone is looking for an artist, for economic, scientific or historic information about this artist, it is not their sale results that will cause us problems. They can go on. I really do not imagine the 2,900 auction houses working together at one unique database. This is how it's been historically. We are lucky that the auction houses have so much character and temperament, so that they do not manage to form an association.
The sale of organised data and econometric analysis etc remains consequently your domain.
Yes. And the value we add [compared to the raw data of the individual auction houses] is a thorough coverage of the market, organised and presented in a useful way for the collectors.
By implementing an interactive store system for art dealers and collectors you transformed www.artprice.com
from an information platform into a market place. Do you have future plans to enhance the possibilities of transaction for market participants?
Yes, absolutely. According to the figures of the French government, www.artprice.com
has realised a turnover of one billion three hundred thousand Euro in 2005. For 2006, we probably went up to a billion seven hundred thousand Euro. It is obvious that, since we have a market platform with such volumes, the intelligence and the perspective of economic thinking leads - one way or another - to a situation where deals are closed at www.artprice.com
. Will we be the platform for the greatest auctioneers in the world tomorrow? Why not? But the adventure continues: there will be a second phase of Artprice
This will depend a bit on the European Community, on the directive Bolkestein. But tomorrow, Artprice
is going to be at the heart of the market. It is the normal development. We have normalized the art market, and thanks to this normalisation, the biggest market place in terms of volume was born. Tomorrow, we will accompany the auctioneers and the galleries even further. Because this is the future. Today's art market is dematerialising itself in order to enter the Internet. In the 80s, it was common practice to make phone calls to the auction rooms. So the act of buying art from a distance existed already at that time, and we are accompanying this movement. For example, and it depends on the legislation to come, but we are considering online-auctions.
But the concept of online-auctions failed several times. Sotheby's and Artnet tried it, even eBay, butů
Too early, much too early. All these attempts were ventured when less than 250 million people had access to the Internet, and when we still had low-speed connections. Furthermore, with respect to eBay, there was a lack of knowledge of the market.
For the success of this operation, we have installed an Intranet on which auctioneers can connect and develop their catalogues. If the art market is supposed to work in the Internet, it will have to be normalized. Let's take a look at eBay for example: you find yourself in front of a colour photocopy of DalÝ for 15 Dollars, next to a genuine painting by DalÝ; just because I type "DalÝ". It needs to be normalized. And the art market is, at the same time, very intelligent and very ferocious.
It is true that in special the case of eBay, the categorization was not clear, and one could get lost easily. In this regard, fraud is a big problem for the art market, and for eBay for example. Will your system allow anyone to put an art work for sale online?
The big difference is that we know each and everyone of our clients, and that we have a security system. eBay acts on the principle "I don't know what happens on my electronic platforms". The difference is that we keep an eye on what is happening, and we assist our clients, both vendors and buyers. eBay acted on the reflection "it's business", [but we go beyond this]. We check the ads, and if there is no certificate of authenticity for example, we have the right to retract the ad.
Joseph Schumpeter, a famous Austrian economist popularised the term of "creative destruction" for entrepreneurial behavior to describe the process of industrial transformation that accompanies radical innovation. Throughout your entire personal career you can be seen as such a person. Would you describe yourself as a radical entrepreneur who destroys traditional ways of doing things to achieve something better?
In France, Derrida, the philosopher, used the notion "deconstruction", when he was talking about the destruction of principles. That is: going to the core of the system in order to deconstruct it; not to destroy, but to deconstruct. We have returned to the core of the art market, and with the Internet, we are operating a progressive deconstruction and thus lead the art market into the third millenium. Yes, deconstruction is necessary. It is the fracture of a system that enables us to operate from a new perspective, to operate a new form of capitalism and a new view with astuteness.
With the Internet, we are now in the deconstruction of the whole 21st century economy. It is an unmerciful system that is killing all former actors. Only those knowing how to mutate will survive, the mutants will survive.
Nowadays, your name is mostly mentioned in connection with your Gesamtkunstwerk the "Mansion of Chaos", where you - again - radically transform your headquarters into an apocalyptic battleground. Can you tell us when and how this ambition evolved in you?
The New York Times described "the Adobe of Chaos" as the most important and the most emotional artistic adventure of the 21st century. I think that the radical change of our headquarter and the life here means living with your century. The 21st century was born in a chaotic way, with 9/11 and the ruins of the World Trade Center: the world has changed; the westerners have lost a lot of their haughtiness. We live in world of total deconstruction. We live the global village of McLuhan, but in a local manner. It's "glocal", global and local at the same time. And in this context, the chaos theory is a way of reviewing all our western principles. "What is the market?", "What is freedom?", "What is democracy?", "What is the history of the world?"
And so there had to be something like a caesura, and as sculptor, I created a monumental work of 12,000 m▓ with 2,700 art works. It reflects a permanent view of the world.
And it was 9/11 that has provoked this need of expression in you?
Yes. Fukuyama, an American historian, talked about "the end of
History", in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I say: 9/11 is the big return of History. We live in the 21st century which is tragic, but sumptuous. With all the violence and insolence, History is free. In every second, History is in progress, and we try to be in the middle of it.
As an artist, I can paint, sculpt, and create this History. It is also important that artists imagine, see and tell their view of the world.
Interviewer Marek Claassen
For the professionals in the art business it is common to deal with various occupations. Artists for example are often curators and sometimes run galleries. But it is relatively seldom for a manager of a company listed on the stock market to artistically express himself. Why is this so important for you? What inner voice tells you to do it this way?
We have almost 30,000 shareholders, and they have all known about this for years. There have been more than 700 reportages on TV and in international media about "the Abode of Chaos", and on the contrary, our shareholders rather think "this man is perhaps a bit crazy, but ingenious, and he goes through with his ideas". If you want to change the face and the history of the art market, when you say "I want - from a historic point of view - the art market to change", you will need to have a lot of madness inside yourself, a lot of chaos, a lot of dementia that only an artist can have. Who else than an artist can speak to galleries?
And when have you decided for this lifestyle?
It has always been like this, actually. My father came from the top industry; he was a member of Opus Dei and close to the Vatican. I left home at the age of 11 and built my empire all by myself. My life has always been borderline.
I come home, open a door, and it's Artprice; I go out, and it's "Abode of Chaos". I am the CEO of the group and at the same time, have been a sculptor for 25 years. This is an integrated whole. And there are not just two persons, it is a unique history. What determines the force of Artprice
, is that we have this open view.
Mr Ehrmann, thank you for the interview.
This interview can also be viewed as an video on vernissage.tv