Second part of an exclusive interview with Thierry Ehrmann, CEO of Artprice.com (9 October 2011)
Paris, October 10, 2011
Second part of an exclusive interview with Thierry Ehrmann, CEO of Artprice.com (9 October 2011)
Boursica: Since our first interview in early June, a lot has happened to Artprice and to financial markets.
We have many questions to which we would like you to give detailed answers.
Firstly, why, in your opinion, did the exclusive interview that you gave to Boursica in June 2011 about Artprice – presented in several languages on Google (and view 210 000 times so far) – elicit so much interest from the public?
(Interview of June 2011: http://serveur.serveur.com/Press_Release/pressreleaseEN.htm#20110606)
I just think French shareholders are frustrated with politically correct communiqués from companies listed on regulated markets that require doctorate level educations to decrypt.
The first interview recounts in plain language the extraordinary story of Artprice’s development, created from scratch 14 years ago, to become the world leader in art market information. The story’s appeal is intimately linked to the fact that it concerns, above all, an extraordinary human adventure and with an exceptional team, a huge project considered almost utopian at the time, but which has now become a hard reality, used every day by 1.3 million Artprice members and millions of free users who ultimately purchase information on Artprice when the time is right for them.
Boursica: In that first interview you talked about Artprice’s uninterrupted sequence of unprecedented legal disputes. The company’s development therefore hasn’t been all roses?
Artprice’s history has indeed involved many legal battles on different continents. You cannot break into the world’s oldest monopoly – the art market – without treading on some people’s feet. But in that interview, I clearly argued that today you cannot judge a company simply by its accounts, balance sheet and annexes. In 2011, non-tangible assets and particularly intellectual property have become, to quote Paul Getty, the petroleum of the 21st century. IFRS still cannot measure numerous human, financial and scientific factors which are fundamental for appreciating a group such as Artprice.
Boursica: This sort of language may be appropriate for your small shareholder audience, but is it enough for financial professionals!
Absolutely! You cannot imagine the number of fund managers, corporate bankers and financial analysts who have admitted to me that, with that interview, they have at last obtained a really useful insight into Artprice, one that had been lacking in the 10 years of registration documents and regulatory information that has been in circulation. It is even possible that one day Artprice will be studied as a case example at the SFAF (Société Française des Analystes Financiers – French School of Financial Analysis).
Boursica: So in your view, the communication issued by listed companies on regulated markets is simply a coded way of saying nothing?
Regulated information, contrary to conventional wisdom, can disclose a lot more than we imagine. Some listed companies should stop railing against the AMF and other supervisory authorities. What I am talking about is the way certain companies conduct a kind of self-censorship. Who is going to invest in equity on the basis of a quarterly publication that contains very little in the way of concrete reality? The recent communiqués from the banks are of course a perfect example… particularly concerning their stress tests and their risk exposure. In just three months, we have heard some extremely conflicting information…
Boursica: So what should senior management teams do?
Business leaders should have an honest and almost physical relationship with markets and shareholders. Of course, this involves time, endurance and the management of sometimes passionate feedback, but these are the rules of the game. All honest, passionate and full communication leads mechanically to shareholder or fund manager disinhibition because these people are constantly subjected to the dictates of sterile press releases and so when they hear or read something « real », they sometimes go with Artprice.
Boursica: Let’s talk again about the law of 20 July 2011 which transposed the European Services Directive into French law, and about its impact on online auctions. What does this mean for you?
It represents a huge victory for us after eleven years of legislative hell, European lobbying and a merciless war against a small cast of individuals that was hell-bent on perpetuating this monopoly which has survived since 1556 to the 21st century. All kinds of twisted strategies have been thrown at us… but they have only strengthened our confidence that we had, in the form of Artprice’s Standardized Marketplace and the behaviour logs of our 1.3 million members in accordance with European laws on data personal, a very important share of the global art market. The legal allegation of concerted practices that Artprice has filed with the anti-trust authorities is currently being investigated and it contains some highly incriminating information for our opponents. This case will no doubt generate some very interesting news in the near future.
Boursica: This hard-headed determination to resist change by what you call a « cast », does it have its roots in an economic logic or in a simple loss of social status?
An old rule says that the degree of aggressiveness of the opponent tells you, in real time, the distance you are from the vault where he reigns supreme. From this point of view, with 126 trials of which 117 have been won on different continents (see the first interview), we were sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that we were extremely close to acquiring, legally, this monopoly without an abuse of a dominant position. I would liken our war with the old guard to the process described in Tomasi of Lampedusa’s The Leopard – a perfect metaphor for what we have experienced.
Boursica: This law is applicable since 1 September 2011. What are you waiting for?
Indeed, 1 September 2011 is the date of application of the law, but I invite you to read Article 5 where are obliged to wait for a joint Order from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Culture concerning the movement of cultural assets. This Order will soon be declared. I should clarify that an Order is not subject to any legislative debate and, as its name suggests, allows uniquely for the determination of the applicative methodology of a given piece of legislation. There is therefore no risk that a third party could slow down in any manner whatsoever this unilateral communiqué.
Boursica: Some of our members told us the Figaro newspaper had decided to launch itself in the auction world.
Nothing new… I remind you that the Dassault family is both the owner of Figaro and one of France’s major auction houses, Artcurial. For years, the Figaro has run full-page advertisements for Artcurial. It was therefore natural that the Figaro, under its own brand, should promote the sales of the auction houses in its own group (amongst others), but the Figaro, as a legal entity, is not an operator within the meaning of the Act of 20 July 2011. I remind you that for several years now Artprice, through a partnership, has been providing almost all the data and text for the Special Issue of Figaro Fine Art – Guide to the Art Market.
Boursica: Specifically, how will auctions on Artprice actually take place? Will it be like eBay?
Absolutely not! For many reasons: the average hammer price being, according to our studies, around 12,000 euros, this requires a fundamentally different legal and commercial approach. Our model is primarily based on clearly identified members. Thanks to an agreement we have signed with Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database, on our system, buyers can check at any time, from any page in our site, whether the artwork being presented for sale is subject to any claim, search warrant or ownership dispute.
Unlike the well-known public auctions services, Artprice imposes on its customers a permanent legal presence which I believe provides the confidence necessary for the success of our Standardized Marketplace as an online auction broker operating remotely by electronic means. In effect, Artprice has been working over the past 5 years with nearly 70 criminal investigation departments around the world allowing Artprice to build an unrivalled level of Internet confidence that is strengthened by its constant collaboration with artists, beneficiaries and experts.
However, our real advantage is our decision to set up escrow accounts with release instructions in which Artprice has conceptualised all possible legal scenarios to ensure that its online sales are indisputable and can be conducted with a level of confidence rarely equalled on Internet. This escrow principle is the same principle used by notaries and lawyers in transactions.
Boursica: Can you tell us exactly how this escrow account will work?
So I will briefly describe the process: when the seller, via a series of procedures, validates the highest bidder of the auction, the buyer must physically transfer the amount, by any means of payment he may wish to use, to an escrow bank account using a unique username and account I-D number. You know the golden rule… a crook will never pay for something in advance. In our framework, the seller has a strong guarantee with the money transferred to a trusted third party. Then, after a highly codified set of procedures, the buyer will definitively validate the sale and give the instruction to release the funds so that the seller can collect the proceeds of the sale and Artprice, in turn, can receive its commission, ranging from 4.5% to 9%, depending on the products and services used in the sale. Our great strength is that we start with a database where each of our 1.3 million members is attributed a confidence index score in compliance with the European directives on personal data.
Boursica: So according to you, the security on Artprice would be almost greater than at a traditional auction house.
Indeed… I would say that our excellent knowledge of the digital economy, combined with our highly advanced computer systems and our unmatched attention to the legal dimension, means that our auctions and other services enjoy a better level of security than that which obtains in the old economy. According to the French Payment Cards Economic Interest Group, we have had, for over 10 years, one of the lowest rates of credit card rejection.
Boursica: In our first interview you described exactly how Artprice can, on its Marketplace, meet the demand of a client wishing to sell, for example, a sculpture by Armand: « Les Poubelles Organiques » by extracting from its billions of client logs all clients who are fans of Armand, his sculptures in particular and more specifically of the period in which he produced Les Poubelles Organiques. Since then however, you have reported further progress; what is that?
Once again, the art market is still way behind the global reality. We must remember that we went from 50 million Internet users in 2000 to over 2.5 billion Internet-connected people in 2011. In 2013, we will largely exceed the three billion threshold. That is why, we have received from around the world – after the law passed on 20 July 2011 – a number of highly interesting proposals from groups operating in the art market and financial groups who believe that just as the virtual stock market replaced the old trading floor, so our Standardized Marketplace is not just an option… but an obligation! I remind you that our parent Group Server, of which I am the founder, has been on the Internet since 1985.
Boursica: What exactly are we talking about here? Potential clients or potential competitors for Artprice?
In the first interview, I clearly explained that Artprice’s Standardized Marketplace is subject to massive intellectual property protection, and on a number of different continents. So we are talking about potential clients and major accounts.
Boursica: What do you mean by potential clients? Since you have said in your press releases that almost 83% of Auction Houses and art experts already work with you.
Indeed, that figure is correct and confirmed. I’m talking about new clients and groups, mainly Asian, relatively young and very wealthy, who cannot envisage the art market of the 21st century, so they say, without a business or capitalistic alliance with Artprice’s Standardized Marketplace. They bring us community networks, hundreds of thousands of buyers and sellers, because they rightly believe that the art market will take off seriously when the intermediation margin collapses, which according to the Council of Voluntary Sales, is about 37.5%.
Boursica: What is their business model and where is your advantage?
Despite a dominant position, there are still – especially in Asian countries like China, of course, (the world’s no. 1 art marketplace)… but also Singapore, Hong Kong etc. – a number of capillary networks that cannot be apprehended. Our partners have fully understood the value-added they bring us and they have integrated, contrary to what is generally believed, the insurmountable barrier of intellectual property that is indeed a very substantial barrier to entry (cf Apple vs. Samsung). So they modelled – with large sums of money that no European is able to commit – a war machine by using affinity marketing to piggyback our Standardized Marketplace. Simply speaking, we are implementing white and/or free brands. For them, the cards have been dealt, and some of them are already forecasting their IPOs. It’s not for nothing that we are patiently preparing the opening of a subsidiary and data rooms in Hong Kong which is the testing laboratory of the People’s Republic of China and the gateway to all of Asia. Hong Kong is already one of the top five capitals of the global art market.
Boursica: So does this mean in concrete terms that Artprice is going to participate in IPOs?
We need to understand that the crisis which started in 2007 is, in my opinion, a sign of the decline of the West and certainly not just another recession. I have no time to lose. While in Europe, it takes me three months to get an appointment with a key player, in Asia, we are already drafting memoranda of understanding. As such, it is clear that Artprice will use for its own account all the interest of future IPOs of these major players whose projected funding will, in some cases, be larger than Sotheby’s, which is listed on the NYSE.
Boursica: Who can exceed Sotheby’s capitalization?
I am thinking, for example, of Poly International Auction, a leading Chinese auction house that we have known physically for a number of years and which is preparing its IPO without the slightest concern for the collapse of Western financial markets. There are also a large number of players who have understood the sociological mechanism of art fairs and biennials and found in the social network, Artprice Insider (that we have been developing for nearly two years with sociologists, market players and its members) a revolutionary way to perpetuate an art fair, which by nature is an ephemeral phenomenon, but nonetheless necessary.
Boursica: Does this mean the end of Contemporary Art fairs as we know them?
Ultimately, yes… but in practice, of course not… they will still continue and will act as the highlights of art news, the continuity of which, throughout the year will be on Artprice Insider amongst other sources. Here again, we had to patiently deconstruct the socio-economic mechanism of international fairs. To understand this revolution, dealers and galleries, in the 1990s, considered international fairs as a way to boost their sales. Today, their main concern is to exchange information with their clients and colleagues and, at the very least, to earn enough to cover the cost of their stand. Again, we replace an expensive and ephemeral physical network by a low-cost and permanent digital network. We must not forget that there are more than 300 international art fairs a year, which is a heresy from an economic point of view. Only historical and powerful Fairs such as the FIAC – with whom we have jointly edited for the last 5 years the bilingual annual report on the Contemporary Art market – will survive.
Boursica: In the current economic crisis which is unprecedented, is art really a safe haven?
Many studies by economists, sociologists and researchers have been published in the 20th century on the profitability of artworks, but these researchers did not have right econometric tools. They used, in general, arithmetic tools which were based on a comparison approach; but this approach induced errors since their studies involved a heterogeneous market type, as I explained in the first interview. To recap, we can trace a work that has been identified and « standardized » by us from a sales catalogue in 1908 as it is sold at auction regularly through the subsequent decades. Our system allows us to be sure it is the same artwork. We therefore know its value and performance year by year, and for this reason, we are the only company in the world to have a flawless econometric method (base on repeat sales) that can be applied to all « homogeneous » works.
That’s why we set up indices and tools from the financial milieu that measure the performance of Old, Modern and Contemporary art. Our statistics show without any doubt that in certain price ranges and concerning certain artists or specific works, the price performance is almost constant, regardless of external factors, including the collapse of financial markets.
Boursica: That seems to suggest we could have derivative instruments based on the art market?
Indeed, we have international partners from the private banking and finance sectors who, together with our data, are preparing the securitization of artworks for which we own the entire history of prices and indices. We should not forget that artworks were involved in the launch of the first banks in Europe and for many centuries they were used as pledges and guarantees and as vehicles of fiduciary value.
Boursica: Who will be their professional buyers and their final clients?
Mainly financiers, who usually have good knowledge of the art market and who believe that these derivative products – backed by the reliable indices that we produce – give them additional protection against stock market volatility.
The first marketing tests have been very positive. Clients of private banks or family offices (more than 30 million HNWIs around the world) were very receptive to this type of financial asset.
Boursica: Why do you think that – faced with such revolutionary changes – the existing structure of the Western art market is so conservative?
I would not be quite so categorical. The older generation is indeed at least 30 years behind because it was mainly negotiating works by deceased artists. This gave them the certainty that very few new works by the artists would appear on the market. Today, mainly in Asia but also in North America and Europe, Contemporary living artists often produce more than their Modern peers who, according to art history criteria, are all dead. So we are in the presence of nearly a million recognized artists, living exclusively from their work, with an average sale price on the primary market of 8,000 to 15,000 euros (galleries) and to the secondary market (auctions) of 30,000 – 70,000 euros. Artprice is the only company in the world with full biographies and index data for these artists. Hence the fact that the primary and secondary markets are constantly on Artprice in both free and paid access. To illustrate the backwardness of the older generation, I will give you a very telling anecdote: the President of a leading French auction houses told me he was thinking this summer about the Internet, and he said « … given that we have now exceeded 200 million internet connections in the world… ». It’s terrifying to hear such nonsense from such a distinguished and otherwise learned CEO; the number of Internet users worldwide is today well over 2.5 billion! The old guard is indeed a long way behind reality.
Boursica: Under the « key person » section of the chapter on « Risk Factors » in your Registration Document, we learn that you have yourself been an artist-sculptor for 30 years. Is this intimate knowledge of artists a special advantage?
Yes indeed, my status as a sculptor-artist allows me to be at the heart of the arts community and to understand its evolution, its changing needs, its problems and its ambitions.
Boursica: Do you still find time to produce works?
Absolutely! For example, I just finished this summer a monumental 50 ton installation of 99 steel sculptures called Les Sentinelles Alchimiques (The Alchemical Sentinels) on 9000 m² that envelop like a Duchampian infra-mince my 3600 works comprising the corpus of the « Abode of Chaos » (dixit The New York Times), which is also the headquarters of Artprice and Server Group. It is currently one of the largest sculptural installations in Europe.
Boursica: How long has it taken the market to increase tenfold?
In less than 20 years we have moved from traditional oil paintings for which the drying-time on the canvas took months to a world of acrylic paint and technological and industrial innovations that allows sculptures and installations to be produced in weeks not months. Hence the volume of artworks produced in the world has been multiplied by 20 in less than 25 years. The explosion of this market – which now affects a multitude of generations and social statuses with nearly 300 million non-professional buyers, collectors and art professionals – is being fuelled by the falling unit production cost of the artworks, making them accessible to a much broader public.
Boursica: We still see very large price swings for works produced by young artists?
Yes that’s true, but these young artists, via the Internet and thanks to our Standardized Marketplace, where each has a dedicated space, know how to adapt very quickly to the market correction, by reducing their production or by moving to continents where there is a stronger economic growth. Facing them is a generation of old players who are sometimes forced to stop sales or block already printed catalogues because the price correction can occur much faster than it takes to organise a conventional auction sale, which requires a minimum of 4 to 9 months preparation. Ultimately, today’s artists have acquired, intuitively, a reaction to the market close to that of the best merchants. The myth of the « cursed artist » is gone forever.
Boursica: Is this one of the things that attracts most of the entire world’s auction houses to Artprice?
Of course, the auction houses, with Artprice’s Standardized Marketplace, will be able to build or modify their auctions on a daily basis through our secure intranet, literally sticking to the market with the certainty of growing sales in our ultra-qualified client database, which is the largest in the world today. So what used to take six months – i.e. organising a successful auction sale in proper conditions – now takes several days for both the buyer and the seller, and, with the certainty of settling the sale and transferring the cash within just a few days.
Boursica: How far will Artprice disseminate its information, free or paid?
We have colossal resources in terms of servers and bandwidth overcapacity, because we are, through Server Group, our own operator; we distribute our data free or in rare cases with very low prices to academic establishments, art schools around the world, artists’ associations, copyright companies, art historians, researchers, etc … I don’t mind saying that we aim to make any person in the world that has any relation to the art market or art history an addict of Artprice. In 2010, Artprice provided free data for nearly 54 million visitors. As long as we do not lose money, we are perfectly happy to create this addiction that has penetrated almost all the institutional and private organizations interested in art around the world. You have to be very patient, but with the growth of the Internet, Robert Metcalfe’s law applies: « the usefulness of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users. »
Boursica: Following the first interview, you had a dispute with Artnet. What was that about?
Artnet, which is not in the same business as us, had to lower its guard on the comments contained in the interview (that we maintain in every way) as we have launched proceedings against them for violation of our intellectual property rights. By the way, I would like to adjust what I said in the first interview by indicating that in a single trading day Artprice represents a volume of transactions in the year 2011 equivalent to about 3 months of trading Artnet. In addition, we note that Artnet exited the official market in September to enter the free market in Germany, which is a terrible regression for both its shareholders and for the company.
Boursica: Speaking of the stock market, how is Artprice doing?
At 5 October 2011, Artprice posted the best stock market performance on the French regulated market with +158% and a total transaction volume of more than 702 million euros since 1 January 2011. Once again, the market is an instinctive animal. These figures clearly indicate that the market has made its own investigation, commissioned its own studies and investigations at the heart of the Art Market. You do not exchange 700 million euros in nine months of transactions by accident, especially during the worst stock market crash in history. In old stock market lingo, I would say that we spoke the truth to the market, and the market has fully heard and replied in both volume and price.
Boursica: Are your targets the same as in our first interview in June 2011, despite the crash this summer?
Absolutely! I am strongly maintaining our targets communicated in June 2011, namely, that the price has first of all returned to the levels reached in 2005/2006, i.e. 30 euros when we started talking about the transposition of the Services Directive. This price was a simple return to normal before France decided to exasperate Europe for 5 years by its pathetic refusal to transpose the reform of the auction market, particularly, the electronic aspect. I seriously maintain that our target price should be at least 67 euros which was our highest quoted price before the creation of the Standardized Marketplace in 2005. We have fulfilled all the commitments of our listing prospectus. In fact we are way ahead of the commitments in the 1999 prospectus. I remind you that we have reached 58 euros, in very substantial volumes, and there are still three months to go…
I therefore reiterate that the old stock market adage: « price seen, price re-seen » is indeed a market reality. Artprice has proved that this adage applies to it beyond any doubt… even in times of crisis.
Boursica: In all honesty, what is your vision of the Western economy?
I will answer you simply by quoting the theorist Antonio Gramsci « there is a crisis when the old world will not die and the new world cannot be born ». Remaining with the metaphor, « the world is one big family in which in Europe I find an old friend plagued by a long incurable disease. Then in Asia, I am faced with a teenager full of energy and insolence, and as I return to the States, I see an obese man who refuses to see his condition and continues his bulimic frenzy ». These words should make us understand that the crisis is now existential and it requires additional soul and history, without which we are heading straight into the wall.
Boursica: News being what it is, what do you think of Steve Jobs who has just died?
He was simply iconoclastic and had the ability to accomplish his dreams by embodying them in the computer industry that is indeed a merciless arena. His passion allowed him to imagine and conceptualize the 21st century. I would describe him more as a philosopher of the digital age and of nomadism than as an entrepreneur. I am sure that where he is today, he is already preparing the version 9.0 of the tri-dimensional iPad 7G!
Boursica: Please allow me to repeat the question I asked you in the first interview: do you have a prediction for the future of Artprice?
I reiterate that we have kept our commitments beyond the listing prospectus of 1999, passing through the crisis of the NASDAQ in 2000, the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Iraq war of 2003, the huge financial crisis that started in 2007 and that has now become a colossal state debt debacle. I know very few companies listed on the regulated market that have survived without ever having carried out capital increases, and which have gained, during this period, a world leader position! Compared with the June 2011 interview, I change my position concerning the future of Artprice because in view of the agreements and contacts that we have built in the three months since the adoption of the Law of 20 July 2011, I believe we have reached only 5% of Artprice’s story, and I believe that henceforward much of our future history will be in Asia.
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To read the first interview: 5 June 2011, Exclusive interview with Thierry Ehrmann, CEO of Artprice.com: http://serveur.serveur.com/Press_Release/pressreleaseEN.htm#20110606
Discover the Alchemy and the universe of Artprice: http://web.artprice.com/video/
Or contact Artprice for a DVD to be sent to you free of charge.
Artprice is the world leader in art market information with over 27 million auction prices and indices covering over 405,000 artists. Artprice Images® offers unlimited access to the largest database of art market information in the world, a library of 108,000,000 images and engravings of art works from 1700 to the present day. Artprice continuously updates its databases with information from 3,600 international auction houses and provides daily information on art market trends to the main financial press agencies and to 6,300 press titles worldwide. Artprice offers standardised adverts to its 1,300,000 members (member log in) and is the world’s leading market place for buying and selling works of art (source: Artprice).
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