Yes, but is it Art? Artprice against the World
Thierry Ehrmann lives in a 17th Century mansion on the outskirts of Lyon with his two Great Dane hounds, Saatchi and Reuters. The dog’s names offer more than just a hint about Ehrmann’s twin driving obsessions; art and business. One of Europe’s most unique business moguls, Ehrmann made his fortune through Artprice.com, an online service for determining the value of fine arts for auctions.
Artprice monitors the sale prices of works by 400,000-plus artists using data from auction houses worldwide. The company was formed in 1987 and has been online since the dark ages of the internet and flourished during the worldwide contemporary art boom which saw sales figures increase eightfold. However, the landscape has changed dramatically since the heady days of 2008 when the market was awash with newly-minted collectors trying to get their hands on a Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, or Anselm Keifer.
A major contraction in the global art trade and an ongoing lawsuit from Christie’s, one of the world’s biggest auction houses is taking its toll on Ehrmann’s project. Good job then that the man relishes a challenge…
Ehrmannn has none of the auction house hauteur about him – quite the opposite, in fact. He describes himself as an anarcho-Marxist philosophy and cohabits with several female partners. So far, so iconoclastically at odds with his stuffy counterparts in London, Paris, and New York. "I have always lived in a tribal fashion; we show each other respect," he says from his home in the village of Saint Romain au Montd’Or near Lyon.
Ehrmannn, has none of the auction house hauteur about him – He’s an anarcho-Marxist and cohabits with several female partners.
Doubling up as an artwork in its own right, Ehrmann’s house – a former coaching inn – is titled ‘The Abode of Chaos’. It’s painted black and emblazoned with violent images and portraits of noted personalities, including eight Popes, President Bush, Kofi Annan, and Osama bin Laden. The garden is littered with sculptures; a crashed helicopter is juxtaposed with a wrecked oil truck marked “Halliburton” and a model of the jagged steel remains of the World Trade Center. There’s even a model of an oil platform perches on the roof, which is draped with camouflage netting.
Subtle it ain’t and it should come as no surprise that Ehrmann’s $5million collaboration with over 45 European artists fell foul of the local authorities. In 2006, Ehrmann was fined £140,000 for failing to seek planning permission for his artistic development. Newspapers from around the world reported on the legal battle and the New York Times gleefully reported that Ehrmann “had chosen the site because it contained the remnants of a Protestant church and graveyard with the remains of 800 people.” The appeal judges subsequently annulled a court order to have the site restored to its original state and Ehrmann’s display was allowed to stay.
It’s safe to say he doesn’t possess the need to fit in, and confrontation, it seems, runs in his blood. But in picking a fight with Christie’s, some think Ehrmann has bitten off more than he can chew…
The London-based auction house owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault, sued Artprice in 2008 for trademark violations and copyright infringement, Bloomberg reported recently. Christie’s accused Artprice of scanning the company’s auction catalogues for its 1.3 million website subscribers without permission.
“Artprice reproduced in their entirety more than 2,300 of Christie’s catalogues on its Web site without permission,” the auctioneer said in an e-mailed statement. “This is nothing more than a clear-cut case brought by Christie’s for the global infringement of Christie’s copyright and trademarks.”
Christie’s are demanding a whopping €63m in damages, a sum that was increased from an initial €2m.
Skate’s Art Market Research, a New York based advisory firm servicing private and institutional investors in the art market recently reported that Artprice’s total revenues for 2009 were just under EUR 4.9 million. Skate’s value Artprice’s total market capitalization at EUR 50 million and falling. Artprice shares plummeted 9% on February 9th in Paris trading – the day the company announced the risk to shareholders of the lawsuit.
Ehrmann believes that this is part of a ploy to deliberately devalue his company and has hit back with a counter claim. Artprice belongs to the flamboyant entrepreneur Thierry Ehrmann, who is fighting back. The Financial Times reported that he is countersuing with three complaints under France’s financial code, accusing Christie’s of “seeking to influence his company’s share price”.
Ehrmann believes that the dispute with Christies has an underlying commercial basis, the FT says, since Artprice also sells art online (the average price for a work of art sold on the site is just over €12,000). He maintains that the auction house is trying “to take control of Artprice at a lower price”.
“It’s a tactic which consists of creating a panic effect,” Erhmann says. “To me, the materiality of the offence is uncontestable.”
The paint clearly hasn’t dried on this one yet, and as the art market is now showing some signs of recovery, it’ll be worth watching whether Ehrmann’s iconoclastic style will pay dividends once again…
Artprice is listed on Eurolist by Euronext Paris: Euroclear: 7478 – Bloomberg: PRC – Reuters: ARTF