Exclusive interview parts 1 and 2 with Thierry Ehrmann, the Founder and Ceo of Artprice.com
Paris, June 5, 2011
Paris, October 09, 2011
Boursica: Could you remind us of how Artprice was created?
It was first of all an enormous amount of collective work involving incredible art historians. In just 14 years, we bought up almost all the editorial funds in Europe and the USA and now we’re working on Asia. This covers art publishing houses, art editorial funds worldwide and assets representing over €30 million.
You should know that through the Serveur Group that I founded and is Artprice’s parent company (which specialises in judicial, juridical and scientific databases), we have been on the Internet since 1985 and we were therefore able to prepare and identify our key targets when we arrived on the art market in the 90’s.
BOURSICA: Who were these targets?
The targets were legendary firms such as the Enrique Mayer Guide (1962/1987), the famous Dictionary of Art Sales 1700-1900 by Doctor H. Mireur, the leading American company, Sound View Press, with nearly 50 databases in the USA (1991), Franck Van Wilder editions (1970) the Swiss company Xylogic, the world specialist in Art Market price indices (1985), the Bayer database on the Anglo-Saxon art market from 1700 to 1913, Caplan’s Monograms and Signatures, a world reference work (USA – 1976), L’Argus du Livre de Collection et des Manuscrits (France),a world reference work (1982); and the list goes on… And we bought them all.
For the past 14 years, we have also had a systematic policy of purchasing manuscripts and catalogues, mainly from 1700 to 1970 from the world over. We had no choice but to buy this historic knowledge, otherwise we could not have standardised the art market with certainty nor obtained perfect traceability of works of art and correctly allocated them to the artist’s biography.
We have gone well beyond the millions of hours of work by historians, research workers and journalists in the art market, who have documented and written on all the works taken from these manuscripts and catalogues, particularly from the 17th century to date. This is why we now have the largest database of information on the market in the world, which allows us to trace works of art over the centuries, with 108 million images or engravings of works of art from 1700 to date, commented by our art historians.
It is not without reason that Artprice enriches its databases from almost 4,500 auction houses in real time and publishes trends on the Art Market continuously for the main agencies and 6,300 press titles worldwide. Every day, without paying a single cent, we are present in the world press with our copyright and our Internet address. What more could you ask in terms of reputation and communication?
BOURSICA: Could you continue with how Artprice was created?
To get back to how it all started, we went back to the very beginnings of the art market, which was practically born in around 1700; it was only from that period that artists began to truly break free from commissions from the Princes of the Church and the Realm to finally produce works of art in response to demand. We can consider that It was at this time that the art market was born, in the economic sense of the word.
For the past 14 yearsn we’ve had experts and dealers working for us worldwide and as soon as they get their hands on manuscripts, they inform us and we buy the manuscripts and catalogues. We’ve bought so many that we’ve more or less achieved a shortage; at the outset we bought them at very high prices and then gradually the pincer technique has come into play and the latest are now bought every year at very reasonable prices. This fund is unique in the world and we open it up, with prior authorisation on our part, to researchers from the world over.
BOURSICA: So what is your added value on this documentary fund?
Our work on the Artprice databases is really like mining work, every day we have to go down into the mine, and we’ve being doing it for the past 15 years. In the years 2000 we reached a figure of over a hundred employees, whereas now there are just 45 of us because all the work is now in the databases. The number of employees has been divided by three and the number of servers has been multiplied by nearly 30 over the past decade. To standardise the art market we had to create the definitive inventory of works of art and the biography of hundreds of thousands of artists from the 4th century B.C. until today, sometimes with hundreds of homonyms to each of which the right works have to be attributed.
BOURSICA: How do you produce your reference prices since a painting is by its very nature unique?
Take for instance, a work of art identified in 1850, it goes from auction house to auction house over decades. We’re therefore certain that it is indeed the same work of art and we know its price and yield year after year. That’s why we are the only company in the world to have a perfect econometric method for all works of art. In econometrics, its called the repeated sales method, because we’re working on a homogeneous market. Others calculate arithmetic averages, using the method of comparables, but this leads to errors because their studies involve a heterogeneous market.
BOURSICA: How have you been able to get around this problem in such little time?
That’s why, in 2000, we bought the famous Swiss company Xylogic for a small fortune, a company of scientists who had created all the algorithms and price indices for the art market since 1985. We are the only ones to have, 10 years later, these gigantic databases (over 700 terabytes) in our own computer rooms, with nearly 900 servers operating on our own fibre optics, which we own. We do not depend on any IT services company, which explains why our developments and R&D are so fast and our IT expenses so low.
What’s very important for Artprice is that we have succeeded in building up the largest collection of annotated manuscripts and catalogues in the world. This colossal documentary fund has been entered on our expense account (income statement) using a precautionary principle, something that is very good news for our shareholders who have a balance sheet that does not reveal these assets which are, of course, significant.
We add new data to our databases every day from the world over. We have bought up Anglo-Saxon, Chinese and Dutch databases, without which we could not work, even if we put the best art historians on the development, they could not get the same results. For example, for a Dutch painter called Dick Van, an extremely common name in Holland, it is impossible, without our databases, to be certain that we’re talking about the same artist and his works.
BOURSICA: What do you reply to those who ask « why does everyone go on Artprice? »
Quite simply that we don’t have any real competitors because we’re the only ones who manage over a million biographies including artists who are not yet listed and 108 million images or engravings of works of art. Even someone who doesn’t really like Artprice can but search our databases for any artist who is not yet very well known, or is even totally unknown. The same goes for a rare work of art that requires authentication.
People only see the tip of the iceberg of Artprice, but Artprice is above all an enormous amount of work in the background, I even wonder myself how we’ve had the strength to do it! Passion, I believe, is the only rational explanation after all these decades…
BOURSICA: Is the money raised on the stock market, along with funds from the Serveur group and the Bernard Arnault group behind the success of Artprice acquisitions?
Yes, but only in part, because you should know that a cheque book is not the only thing needed to acquire these documentary funds; we’re talking about famous Historians and Authors, infamously ill-tempered, who in some cases had received mind-boggling offers, but the financial aspect was only secondary to these people. We had to persuade them of the importance of our project, as was the case with Frank Van Wilder and Peter Hastings Falk, for example.
These databases represent the wealth of Artprice and, as a precautionary measure, here again our balance sheets do not reflect the true value of our assets, which are truly significant. That is also a source of wealth for our shareholders for the years to come. IRFRS standards do not allow us to give the true value of our company, whence the stock market price which, as if by chance, is much closer to the truth; the Market is very seldom mistaken in over 10 years of continuous listing, as has been the case for Artprice.
BOURSICA: How do you manage reproduction rights for works on line?
Reproduction rights for the work is assured by the specific contract we have signed with the ADAGP, the most representative company in the world, which receives and distributes royalties in over 43 countries. This agreement was a real precursor (2007) in the digital economy and is regularly used as an example by the various different Ministries of Culture in Europe and particularly in France. There again, Artprice has taken the lead over any possible outsiders.
BOURSICA: Would it be possible to create another « Artprice »?
No, absolutely not. Everything is protected under intellectual property laws. Amongst other things I’m trained as a lawyer in literary and artistic property and in the 90’s I was also the instigator of a lobby that aimed at protecting databases in Europe, which then became the « Sui Generis » law, the European law equivalent to what is known in the USA as software patents.
To put it simply, anyone, even someone willing to invest several hundreds of millions of euros, would be prosecuted and forbidden from building up databases or an Artprice Standardised Marketplace, and sentenced for counterfeit and fined in proportion to the investments made, in addition to a ban on using their databases.
Therefore a possible competitor would need to have not only a very large amount of funds available, he would also have to be able to reinvent ergonomics and a structure entirely different from Artprice’s. By analogy, and simplifying the example to the extreme, you could say that we have protected the fact that a car has round wheels; an adversary would have to dream up a vehicle on tracks or on a rail, which as you can imagine is an extremely big obstacle to overcome.
BOURSICA: How are you sure you will do auctions?
Over 80% of Auction Houses worldwide draw up their catalogues based on our data; in real time they use the artist’s biography, prices and indices, and the work traceability, in order to estimate the starting price. Between 2001 and 2003, we spent 2 years calling and visiting 3,600 Auction Houses and 7,400 experts. This marketing and engineering study was extremely expensive in terms of world travel and staff expenses. The Auction House world was devoid of any databases; at best Auctioneers had available Word or Excel files. Still today some of the world’s greatest Auction Houses do not have any computerised databases.
BOURSICA: How is it possible to be so behind, in terms of computerisation and the Internet in 2011?
It’s just crazy. That being said, an old IT rule says that the greater the power or knowledge of a profession or social body, the more it disdains or ignores IT until the day it is forced to give in to the its customers’ demands. In this case, Artprice has arrived in the nick of time. Our professional clients are highly captive and return to us over the years. That’s another proof of our professionalism to our shareholders.
Using our intranet an auction house can produce its paper and Internet catalogue very quickly, and at the same time promote on the standardised Artprice market place its future sales with just a click of the mouse. It can, for example, electronically promote a contemporary sale including 63 different artists to our 1.3 million clients, only those who follow and research these 63 artists (or even certain specific periods of the artist concerned). This is the « killer application » every Auction House has dreamed of, whether large or small, even those who have spent fortunes in advertising and marketing campaigns. For a prestige sale, advertising and marketing can represent up to 70% or 80% of an Auction House’s expenses, whereas with Artprice it will cost them only 4.5%.
BOURSICA: Why have you chosen the Abode of Chaos as Artprice’s headquarters, is that provocation or strategy?
It’s neither. The world of the Abode of Chaos is inseparable from the history of Artprice and of the Serveur Group, a historic Internet pioneer since 1985, the two of which have their headquarters in the heart of the Abode of Chaos. La Demeure du Chaos / Abode of Chaos, dixit he New York Times, was conceived by me in 1999, it feeds on the alchemy of chaos of our 21st century, both tragic and sumptuous, the embers of which came into being on September 11, 2001. It is almost the same age as Artprice, give or take 3 years.
Today, with over 1,890 reports in the written and audiovisual press in 72 countries in just 12 years, it has become a « Factory », an essential Museum, unique in the world, according to the international art press. It’s an open-air, free-entry museum, presenting over 3,627 works, welcoming 120,000 visitors every year. Every time the world art press talks about the Abode of Chaos, Artprice is of course mentioned.
How could one build Artprice out of nothing, an almost-mythical company which sources 90% of the world press on art market information, without being oneself, body and soul, an artist who is passionate about the history of art? You can’t imagine the number of visitors to my Museum, now number two in Lyon in terms of the number of visitors, who are Artprice clients or shareholders. Every year we hold our annual general meeting at the Abode of Chaos and all we’ve been given are encouragements for the past 10 years.
In terms of clients, and particularly world art galleries, they are extremely aware of working with Artprice, whose founder has been registered for over 25 years with rights holder companies as a sculptor. Take a look at my entry in Who’s Who and you’ll understand. I have lots of work on show worldwide. You should be aware that the art world is highly sensitive and, in the 90’s certain purists saw Artprice, with its indices, prices and statistics, as a group that did not understand the sensitivity of their world, not to mention the fact that we were listed on the Stock Market. But with the Abode of Chaos these same purists have become our most loyal customers. That’s the real answer to your question!
BOURSICA: How would you value Artprice?
For nearly 120 years, according to the comparables method, the value of an Auction House in the world is 80% the client file, at between $800 and $4,000 per client and 20% the Auction House’s name, if it is well known. To understand the difference between one client valued at $800 and the other at $4,000, understand that the price is based on the strands of information we hold on the end customer.
BOURSICA.COM: Could you be clearer, with a specific example?
Let’s take the example of a sale by the sculptor Arman (1928/2005). You could define a degree 1 ($800) with the Auction House who tells you, I’ve got 4,500 clients who buy new realists like Yves Klein, César, Arman or Nikki de Saint-Phalle etc…. Degree 2 would be that the Auction House tells you that it also has clients who buy only Arman sculptures, in the knowledge that he is also a painter and a photographer. But the ultimate offer, the one that only Artprice can offer to date, is degree 3 where one can offer the 4,500 clients in the world who are looking for Arman sculptures on the highly specific theme of « organic waste ». Within this context, holding this final information is the absolute Holy Grail for Auction Houses or Dealers. Because they can be certain that bids will reach a maximum. One can therefore presume that degree 3 is value in the upper bracket, at around $4,000 per client.
This is the oldest method of valuing an Auction House. The great value of Artprice is that, for a sale, we can find collectors throughout the world who, by their presence, will double or even triple the selling price of a work of art. In a catalogued sale for a well-known artist, new collectors from the other side of the world can double the sale and, in this respect, Artprice is the only company to hold details of these famous collectors, in 210 different countries.
We can state without any difficulty that we currently have on Artprice 100% of those who count in the art market, the great dealers, the great collectors, all the Auction Houses and Experts, the hard core, those who make and unmake prices, known as market-makers. They are all systematically clients of Artprice.
BOURSICA: Even your critics are on Artprice?
Even our fiercest critics use our data. We have 1,300,000 clients, you can consider that value is made according to the level of research of clients. The more clients who are looking for something specific we have, the greater the value of these clients. We are certain of offering the narrowest search criteria. The narrower the search, the more the client is in a position to increase prices at auction and therefore this client is all the more interesting for the Auction House.
We have an extremely complete client file with over 18 billion logs, respecting the demands of the CNIL and European and American authorities, which enables us to know exactly what our clients own or are looking for. Putting things into perspective I really believe that this is currently the best method by which to valorise an Auction House because it is 120 years old and is still up to date, tried and tested thousands of time over, worldwide.
BOURSICA.COM: What will be the level of commission you earn on the transactions?
We are very competitive because intermediation is at 37.5% according to the Voluntary Sales Council, which is the AMF of the art market, whereas we will be at between 4.5% and 7%. We will be better than a bank for a gallery. We will take 4.5% for the transaction and, in addition, between 3% and 4.5% on the hire of the client file we have just talked about, which will enable Auction Houses to target potential buyers better, because we put into contact with the Auction House people looking for Arman works and, better still, offering them the « Arman Organic Waste » period customers, for example. Similarly, commission will be 4.5% on private sales.
BOURSICA: Is Artprice ripe for a takeover bid?
A hostile takeover bid is impossible due to the fact that the Serveur Group controls the Artprice capital, on the other hand a friendly takeover bid, why not, if it is logical in terms of the industry, notably with an auction house listed on the Stock Market, we would think about it.
To better understand Artprice, its reference document or annual report should be consulted, those are real gold mines in terms of sensitive information and are really up to date and detailed.
BOURSICA: Does Artprice have any competitors?
No, that’s stated clearly in the report, because everything is protected under intellectual property law. We only have, within a different perimeter, the company Artnet which achieves in volume in one year on the stock market, the same as we achieve in a week. Artnet is not in the same business as we are, it is listed only on a non-regulated stock market and its accounts are not audited. We see it as a luxury host site which does not own its own production tool. Also, it has not always respected copyright law in a certain number of countries. In addition it’s had its brand Artnet snatched due to lack of vigilance by over 18 different depositors in 21 countries, some of which are major countries…. Finally, its rates are outrageous, with a limited number of requests per month, something which was done on the Internet at the beginning of the 90’s. We consider that, in order to be world leader, you have to implement an extremely aggressive pricing policy, like Dell, which I see as a model and which has thrashed the world of PCs and Servers.
BOURSICA: Is Artprice abusing its dominant position?
No! Your question contains the answer, what is punished by the competition authorities is the abuse, not the dominant position, we haven’t refused any sale, our prices reflect the reality of our costs and investments and we have no selective sales policy, but above all we are the original authors of all the products and services offered by Artprice, offering a new and innovative approach. Some people have attempted to make this claim, but their cases have been systematically dismissed.
To take the market fairly but aggressively, such low prices would be necessary that a hypothetical competitor would immediately be operating at a loss since they would not have done like us and paid for all the investments over a 14 year period.
The proof of this is that during the period 2000/2010 no competitor arrived on the scene, on the other hand countless numbers of art sites have gone bankrupt and closed down due to lack of traffic and therefore, turnover; Every week we get about ten requests for buyouts of brands, websites or DNS but they are absolutely of no interest to us, with the exception of some highly specific micro databases in emerging countries.
BOURSICA: Did you try and buy out Artnet?
We were asked three times to buy out Artnet, but it was of no interest to us, at the risk of being subject to a large number of lawsuits. As for the brand, in view of the fact that it is not registered worldwide we would have been immediately caught up in intellectual property conflicts with the other owners of Artnet, who are in their own rights.
BOURSICA: It would appear that other DNS can access the Artprice databases…
Yes, of course, such as for example Artmarket.com. We have 1,800 DNS which are generics around the Art market in 9 languages. If you type Artmarket into Google, you get Artprice as number 1 in ranking thanks to the DNS Artmarket.com. We registered the entire semantic at the beginning of the 90’s, in order to address the art market.
Some of them are worth their weight in gold today because there are generics in the purest state, such as Artmarket, but we refuse to sell them.
BOURSICA: Do you have any new clients?
Yes, we get new clients every day and we realise that the average age of our customers is increasing because we have people who discover the Internet, to such an extent that we have to help them in their navigation on the site, and on The Internet in general. We have a policy of going to seek out new clients, wherever they are, and accompanying them on Artprice. This clientele is called, amongst other things the « silver surfers », as defined by the giants in marketing as being surfers with silver (grey) hair, in other words, Seniors (over the age of 55). Similarly, we are seeing more and more young collectors, with an average age of 30/35 years, whence the phenomenal success of the Artprice Smartphone subscription. The Art Market has indeed increased worldwide from 500,000 collectors just after the war to a current total of almost 300 million art-lovers, collectors and professionals, whose favourite hunting grounds are the Internet with the market going virtual, notably with Artprice’s normalised market place. And the Asian continent has created an explosion in the Art Market, in terms of market players.
BOURSICA: How is Artprice’s financial health?
Unlike the vast majority of listed companies, we do not have a single cent in debt. No bank overdraft, short, medium or long term loans, no financial instruments to reimburse such as BSA and other derivative products… That’s what very often amazes the AMF!! We also have a good cash flow and negative working capital requirements.
I should point out that I am deeply hostile to any increases in capital which not only dilute shareholders but also, and this is often forgotten, prevent a listed company from seeing its price rising very rapidly. Proof is that Artprice has about 4 million shares in circulation. If we were like most of the companies on the regulated Eurolist, there would rather be between 20 and 40 million shares in circulation and we would have increased by only €2 or €3 in 2 months, whereas we have gained €22 for a volume processed in 45 market trading sessions of around €250 million.
BOURSICA: With the volumes we have seen, why hasn’t the declaration threshold been crossed?
According to our latest TPI enquiry and estimates, we have increased from 18,000 shareholders to a possible estimate of around 27,000 shareholders. In 2010 81% of our clients were Artprice shareholders. This is a proof of security because they know almost everything about Artprice, sometimes they’re the ones who identify targets for us to buy or give us ideas for improving our databases.
BOURSICA: What about the Chinese funds?
For them the notion of crossing a threshold is not one they understand, they enter through a multitude of accounts, which enables them to remain under the threshold limit. We have made conference calls to fund managers, 2/3 of whom are in Hong Kong. I’ve never seen that before and it’s certain that they are not buying for French customers.
BOURSICA: How long do you think it will be before the legislative course is completed for the Law on the liberation of auction sales?
It’s a question of weeks, at most. It should be pointed out that in less than 45 years France has moved from 1st to 4th place in the world, with China now in first place, followed by the USA in second place and the United Kingdom in third.
Also, the Drouot scandal has weighed very heavily. Every week we come across consequences of that business, investigations have only just begun. I suggest you read the book « Adjugé Volé » (« Auctioned and Stolen ») by Michel Deléan on this matter. 39 investigations have already started. The government would appear to have decided to go all the way, knowing that Drouot represents 45% of the French art market. We have exasperated the Europeans with adaptation of this directive into domestic law and there is enormous pressure on France. It’s an affair of the State, with a risk of colossal fines being imposed by the European Court of Justice. Moreover, the French Art Market Authority, the CVV, considers that it would be suicidal for France to go for a minimal reform and after the injunctions from Brussels it is highly likely that the matter will go before the ECJ very soon.
We were the first to draft the code of law, the Code des Ventes Volontaires et Judiciaires in 2000, which has now become the reference amongst French auctioneers. It’s the only book (1800 pages) which refers to the first reform of 2000 and its non-application. That reform of 2000 was a gigantic farce because Auctioneers have remained with their monopoly of 1535 with, amongst other things, the obligation of requesting an authorisation for each sale.
In cases where this was given just a few days or even a few hours before the sale it proved a real obstacle to free movement of products and services in Europe, particularly for auctions of works of art on the Internet.
We have all the factors for success. The process has been definitely endorsed. The train of History is on its way and we are in that train, which nothing can stop now. We only had to be very patient and determined against this monopoly which has lasted almost 500 years, by following the way of the legislative cross for 10 years.
BOURSICA: Why haven’t you moved away?
Because the cost of going would have been greater, not to mention other incidences such as communicating in a foreign language, a new stock market, physical moving of all the system, the staff, etc.
BOURSICA: What have you got to say about the ISF (tax on fortune)?
That’s a very serious subject. It’s the UMP parliamentary block that has made this proposal. Their analysis is to set up an ISF that targets only indisputable latent capital gains. I don’t necessarily agree with it, I do not believe that it is the right solution but parliamentarians have understood that Artprice enables them to say to collectors that there is an exact gain for the works of art they own. On the other hand, clearly this will be good for the Artprice marketplace because people can benefit from remaining anonymous, with Artprice protecting the identities of both buyer and seller. This is not possible in actual auction sales rooms. We noticed that the number of creations of virtual portfolios by our clients exploded on the day the announcement was made and during the ensuing hours, to simulate the price of their collection.
BOURSICA: Can we be thinking about rapid transition to the SRD Long Only?
Maybe in September, it’s up to the Euronext scientific committee to decide, but clearly we exceed the entry criteria.
BOURSICA: Have you backtested your system for future on-line auctions?
Yes of course we have. We have carried out beta tests abroad and everything is operational. Auction Houses are already linked up to our Intranet for catalogues. For the marketplace I think there will be 80% Auction Houses and professionals and 20% collectors and individuals. As soon as the law is passed our best clients will be the Auctioneers. They say themselves « we can only do it with Artprice ». They let the Internet train pass them by at the end of the 90’s and then again in 2005 and now it’s too late and too expensive. The show has already sold out.
BOURSICA: How far has Artprice penetrated the Chinese market?
In order to succeed we have acquired lots of Chinese databases, otherwise it would have been impossible. We have had the extremely diplomatic help of the Chinese authorities; we had to have it because Chinese Auction Houses are partially controlled by the government. The cultural affairs department in China helped us to show that China was first in the world art market. We have Chinese staff in Lyon, it took us 4 years between the moment we decided to go for the Chinese market and the moment when we became operational.
BOURSICA: Did you have any difficulties in becoming world leader? You’re sometimes criticised for your procedural attitude?
Yes, and I take 100% responsibility for it. We’ve had to face 126 law suits in 14 years in several countries, particularly brought by distributors of price list books which we had bought from the publishing houses and who wanted their share on The Internet, we have also had disputes with the numerous counterfeiters of Artprice, for whom we have zero tolerance. We have won 117 of these cases, including all the main ones. Such as those against the 5 French Auction Houses, some of which are with Drouot actually, they all refrained from going to the Appeal Court, except Camard whom we are prosecuting. The cases we lost were against third parties who had no impact on the life of the company, its accounts or its objectives. Christie’s World is one of our greatest victories.
BOURSICA: Can we hope for a dividend in the near future?
Yes, I think in 2013/2014 according to our forecasts. Before that I think we will have enriched our shareholders quite considerably through the share price. First we will increase equity in order to finance the servers and other very expensive equipment we require to enable us to develop worldwide with maximum security. Remember that we are the only ones to own our own machine rooms. We are considered as Internet pioneers in France. The Serveur Group was the first French provider and the second in Europe according to Time Magazine. The wealth created for our shareholders will be such in terms of the share price that they can’t have share and dividend to begin with! Particularly since we have never increased our capital.
BOURSICA.COM: What will be the impact of the change of status after the law on the annual turnover figure?
It will absolutely explode! Growth will be colossal.
BOURSICA: Can we consider that at €30 we are only at the beginning of the story?
It will be noted that the price is returning to the levels reached in 2005/2006 when we started to talk about transposing the Services Directive. €30 is only the very beginning, a simple return to the level before France began its 5-year exasperation of Europe with its pathetic attitude. If we want to think about this seriously, we can only start with a basis of €67, which was the top price reached. We have kept all the commitments included in our introductory prospectus. We are even well above the commitments made in the 1999 prospectus. €67 was the market price when the standardised market didn’t exist. We therefore have the right to expect, quite logically, a start price that will be positioned above €67. « Price seen, price re-seen » is a very old stock market rule.
BOURSICA: And to end with, what is your prediction for the future of Artprice?
With regard to our commitments, which at the time were very ambitious on the 1999 introductory prospectus, we have met them all, well beyond the prospectus actually, coming through the 2000 NASDAQ crisis, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the 2003 war in Iraq and the big financial crisis which began in 2007 and which is far from over. With this decade, which has been the most catastrophic in the past two centuries, I know of only very few companies listed on the regulated stock market which have come out alive, without increasing their capital and which, during this same period, have acquired an undisputed world-leader position. To close this interview, I sincerely believe that we have only seen 10% of the history of Artprice
Paris, October 09, 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?
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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