Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Art Price: The Movie (PG)

Another day at the office
I always had Artprice CEO Thierry Ehrmann down as a bit of a maverick. The corporate video he recently posted on the company’s website (here) is surely a contender for Oddbox corporate video of the year.

Artprice is the most bellicose player in the cut-throat battle of the art price databases that has raged since the dot-com bubble of 1999-2002.

Having raised unprecedented amounts of capital on France’s Nouveau Marché tech stock exchange in 2002, Ehrmann retreated to a post-industrial bunker in the small town of Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, near Lyon, and began acquiring art market archives and databanks that would have made Georges Wildenstein’s eyes water.

The company’s corporate video opens (above left) with the wolfish Ehrmann loping through a breaker’s yard en route to his office – an underground labyrinth in his so-called Abode of Chaos, its walls daubed with arcane symbols, satanic hieroglyphs and snarling skulls – like the set from a Dan Brown movie designed by H.R.Geiger and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I kept thinking of all those bad serial killer movies where the cops break into the bedroom of the unsub only to find the walls plastered with spidery graffiti written in blood.

Monsieur Ehrmann likes to be seen in demented Rick Wakeman mode (right), hammering out a concerto on his server keyboard or seated behind a bank of flickering PC screens outlining his plans for world domination. Then the camera breaks free and starts prowling down the graffiti-scrawled corridors. The staff – who look like neurasthenic lab-rats suffering from a vitamin D deficiency – all spout the same corporate gobbledygook about “asymmetry” and “disequilibrium” in the market. “As soon as one of us gets an idea, we model it to analyze its ramifications,” says one breathless data-inputter.

Hmm…sounds like an easy-going, laid-back kind of office. “I fancy a coffee.” “Good idea! Hold on, while I analyze its ramifications.”

A moment later we stop beside the desk of a Juliette Binoche lookalike who admonishes the art trade for its secrecy. “The message we send to the market is that it is not in its interests to withhold information.” You have been warned.
 Another member of staff poses in front of a frescoed wall portrait of Saddam Hussein (left), and explains: “Artprice has destabilized the small world of the art market that used to be a handful of initiates who had the information but didn’t want to communicate it because it represented their business assets.”

Artprice’s “business assets” now embrace historical paper archives (most of them already digitized or in the process of being so), plus a mind-boggling amount of electronic data that can only be expressed in geek-speak. “We have more than 25 million statistics” says Ehrmann. “…115 million artworks listed in our database in high resolution… 1,800,000 biographies… 1,300,000 subscribers… 18,000 shareholders… we distribute close to 6,300 journals… we have1,000 terabytes of data…the digital volume of our images alone will soon have exceeded 1 petabytes…” Mercy! Enough, already!

If you haven’t glazed over by now, you may be the sort of person Artprice is looking for – someone for whom a petabyte means more than a Pontormo or a Primaticcio.

Monsieur Ehrmann, judging from this video seemingly unsure whether he’s revolutionizing the art market or starring in his own sci-fi movie, may be suffering from delusions of grandeur. This may be a bi-product of running a technology company in a market that has for centuries relied on something called 'connoisseurship' and which is now undergoing seismic change. Ultimately the market will judge Artprice, not on its terabytes of data, but on the revenues it generates.

For me, Artprice, with its illiterate content and satanic black Home Page (I now know why it looks like that), remains a user-hostile, confused, inaccessible, and plain old weird runner-up to Artnet. I can’t imagine ever switching my monthly subscription.

But the one thing I still can’t get my head around. Why stick a portrait of Saddam Hussein on your office wall?


Earlier this year, art market analysts Skate’s reported that misfortunes at Artprice were continuing: “The firm has suffered a double blow — poor financial performance in 2009 coupled with a massive and litigious dispute with the auction industry heavyweight Christie’s.” (The latter concerns Artprice’s wholesale reproduction of Christie’s auction catalogues).

Artprice’s characteristically bullish response to Christie’s litigation can be read in a press relase issued by Artprice’s parent company, Serveur Group, here