Dealers may dislike them, but art databases like Artnet and Artprice have made the art market far more transparent.
To a certain extent, they empowered buyers in a similar way that Bloomberg empowered buy side debt investors. Although it is not worth taking that metaphor too far; Bloomberg can tell you what a bond or stock is worth today, an art price database can only give you a faint clue. But databases have been so influential that some artists have been accused of artnetification – deliberately creating art to match high value works in price databases.
Last week a Paris court of appeal ordered Artnet to pay €764,412 ($800,000) to the photographer of several pieces of furniture that were listed in their price database. Stéphane Briolant took photographs on behalf of auction houses. When Artnet republished them he said the database had violated his copyright. A judge ruled in his favour.
Artnet is considering appealing to Court of Cassation. The damages are a significant amount for the company, which was already looking to lose €2.3 million in its 2014 financial year, and are likely to encourage other claims. Artnet now says it expects to lose Eu3.1 million and has delayed publishing its annual report until the end of April 2015.
“If price database businesses are forced to significantly raise their rates, the victims would be the public and all the art market stakeholders, who would suffer from the reduced levels of transparency, the same transparency that has enabled the growth of that market. We are confident that in the end our perspective will prevail,” said Jacob Pabst, CEO of Artnet.
Pabst is claiming a lot here. Clearly not all of the art market’s growth has been due to art databases (the rise of billionaires, new museums and general economic growth may also have played a part), but artnet was a real innovator. It went online in 1995 when Netcraft estimates there were just 25,000 websites in the world. In 2012 it estimated that there were 644 million sites on the web.
Artnet is appealing Briolant’s case but it is a worrying one for art databases and the market. In a report Skate’s has also questioned how it will affect Artnet’s online auction site, which is lossmaking.
The online auction site market continues to get more competitive. A site called AuctionWeb – which also launched in 1995 – has also launched a new venture site this week. There is a lot riding on AuctionWeb’s (now better known as eBay) joint venture with Sotheby’s. Both companies are having problems with activist investors and could do with some good online news.