Trophy Hunting

J.J. Charlesworth on ‘disintermediation’ or the next step for selling art as investment

By J.J. Charlesworth

Here’s a tale from the more obscure corners of the Internet. Back in the summer of 2015, ICANN, the body that regulates the provision of ‘general top level domain names’ or gTLDs – that’s the bit after the dot in whatever website domain name, like the .com in – finally decided which organisation should control the selling and managing of the new gTLD ‘.art’. And .art, when you think about all the people in the world who might want the term ‘art’ on the end of their domain name, was going to be a lucrative domain name to control.

Various organisations made applications for the right to manage (and sell) .art, among them the New York-based art website and journal e-flux. It was a protracted process, and ICANN couldn’t choose, finally bringing it to a last-ditch auction process last July. E-flux and seven other contenders lost out to a UK-registered company called UK Creative Ideas Ltd.

Since then, though, UK Creative Ideas seems to have pretty much evaporated, little more than a corporate shell, and art domains can’t yet be registered. In the application to ICANN, the company listed four directors, one of whom was Ulvi Kasimov. Kasimov is a venture capitalist, then also CEO of Sferiq, a Russian tech start-up and investment company, and which now lays claim to the application to .art.

Sferiq’s website explains that it will ‘use this domain to unite art and the digital world, creating a global online platform for art and all things art related. It would be a community for everyone who creates, produces, deals in, values or just loves art.’ In 2014, Sferiq sponsored a prize for digital innovation in art, at the Investor Allstars awards in London. The prize was won by Artstack (a sort of artworld Instagram), over a shortlist that included other art-commerce outfits such as Artsy, Paddle8 and Saatchi Art. Writing up the launch of the prize, the entrepreneur news-site Growth Business (cohost of the Allstars awards) opined that: ‘The art market is ripe for internet-based disintermediation. Even today, the vast majority of art sales occur privately through specialist dealers, with little in the way of transparency, market data, third party validation, regulation or liquidity, making it difficult for new entrants to join the market and for investors to trade in art the same way they would in other assets.’

‘Disintermediation’ is a great bit of corporate-speak. It basically means cutting out the middleman; or rather cutting out the old middleman – here the old world of private sales made by gallerists and dealers – to cut a different middle man in, a new generation of more hi- tech, data-driven platforms that would allow investors to ‘trade in art in the same way they would in other assets’.

Now, somewhere on the same track is millionaire art-collector and art-magazine publisher Peter Brant’s merger, late last year, of his own magazine Art in America with the venerable but ailing American title ArtNews. Brant is well known for having made his fortune in the paper industry during the 1980s and 90s, while having assiduously collected contemporary art all the way back to the late 1960s (see Tom Eccles’s interview with Brant in the November 2015 issue of ArtReview). But newsprint and the print-magazine market are not what they used to be in the age of digital media. And what is interesting about Brant’s merger of his Art in America with ArtNews is the way in which he did the deal – an elegant bit of mergers and acquisitions choreography – and the company involved.

ArtNews Ltd had in 2014 merged with a Poland-based company that subsequently renamed itself ArtNews SA; in 2015 Brant bought a controlling share in ArtNews SA, while simultaneously selling his Art in America to the company he had just bought. According to ArtNews SA’s current blurb, the company ‘seeks to create greater transparency of the global art market by empowering buyers and sellers with unbiased and fact-based information making art collecting better understood and more enjoyable with an ultimate objective to constantly grow the universe of art collectors around the world’.

Uncanny, isn’t it? And what is interesting about Brant’s move is that ArtNews SA puts the editorial side of writing news and criticism about art into close proximity with art market analysis – ArtNews SA’s other wing is Skate’s, an art-market-intelligence agency.

So the art market, nontransparent, unregulated, hard to penetrate, is fabulously attractive to those who want to capture the wealth of collectors who are also seeing art increasingly as an investment asset class. Art isn’t an investment, though. Art consumes wealth, it doesn’t produce it. But as the wealthy flock to investing in art as if it were an investment, that is exactly what it becomes. And if you want to tap into that multibillion-pound market, the only thing is to work out how to identify those buyers – make them part of some form of online social media platform, perhaps – and get them buying and selling through you. 

This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of ArtReview.