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Website could be holy grail of private market prices

Art.sy will unite would-be collectors with art and dealers they may not know—and it’s all built on trust

Art.sy, the online art database, which includes Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, venture capitalist Jim Breyer and Wendi Deng Murdoch, as well as Russian heiress Dasha Zhukova and gallerist Larry Gagosian among its backers and advisors, is scheduled to preview its operation at Art Basel this month.

The enterprise hit the headlines last year when it unveiled its list of powerful supporters. “That escalated the project and helped catalyse the interest of other galleries,” said Art.sy’s chief operating officer, Sebastian Cwilich, formerly Christie’s executive and Haunch of Venison director. He said that more than 130 international dealers have signed on, including big names such as Pace, David Zwirner and Acquavella, as well as younger galleries like New York’s James Fuentes and Untitled.

Devised by developer, Carter Cleveland, Art.sy hopes to take art to a wider potential audience. Modelling itself on successful music sites like Pandora, it uses “genome technology” to make connections between works of art based on shared characteristics to introduce users to works they might not otherwise know.

The pricing structure is unusual. Rather than pay a subscription fee, participating galleries are asked to pay Art.sy a sales commission: 15% of the first $10,000 profit (the amount remaining once the dealer has paid the artist’s share and production costs), and 10% of anything above that. As sales are conducted off-site, Art.sy is reliant on the honesty of the participating galleries. While the number of introductions can be tracked, the organisers have no way of knowing if a transaction has occurred. “Is it possible that someone may not report a sale?” asked Cwilich. “Of course—there are always bad actors. But, by and large, I believe people will do the right thing.” He added: “If we can create new collectors then galleries will be only too happy to pay commissions.”

Of course, if dealers comply then Art.sy will hold the art world’s holy grail: a price database of the private market. The organisers stress that the information would be confidential but in an industry so reliant on discretion and exclusivity, will galleries divulge their dealings? L&M gallery’s Francois Renet said that Art.sy’s ambitions of creating a global audience for art is at odds with the private sector’s tendency to keep multi-million dollar deals, well, private. “Gallerists are so secretive about who makes money and how much we make that I believe it would be very difficult for [Art.sy] to find out what a work of art sold for,” said Renet. Nonetheless the gallery will “give it a go”, he said.

Others say it is no different than the commission fee art advisors receive for introductions. “If the site were to send clients our way then we would totally be on board,” said Lower East Side gallerist James Fuentes, adding: “It’s such a small field that it is important to be above the board.” He added: “Ultimately [Art.sy] broadens the reach and context for the artists we work with, which is what makes it exciting.”

“There have been a lot of failed attempts to bring art online. We’ve taken our time to launch because we want to do it right. The art history needs to have the proper degree of rigour, and the technology has to match our ambitions,” said Cwilich.

Each work of art on the database has been classified according to several different criteria, and the team has tried to think laterally. While more traditional art historical results will appear at the top of the list, such as related artist movements, other groupings are more instinctive, based on colour, theme or feeling. “No art historian would define things through colour, but we found that it’s a useful way to look at things,” said Cwilich.

For example, a search for Warhol’s “Flowers” shows works from the same series, as well as other pop paintings by artists including Roy Lichtenstein. Works by those influenced by Warhol, such as Damien Hirst, also show up, as do images by other artists who painted flowers.

“There is a large group of people who have the financial means to collect, but don’t,” Cwilich said. “We want to create an educational, engaging resource for people to explore and discover art. Some portion will go on to collect.” The site will introduce those bitten by the collecting bug to the relevant gallery, so that both parties can follow up independently.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 225 June 2011