With Artprice.com, Thierry
Ehrmann is aiming to turn the fine-arts world into a level playing field
A CURVE ON A WINDING ROAD in Saint Romain au Mont d'Or, a medieval village 9 km
north of Lyons, and you come upon a fortress-like compound straight out of a James
Bond movie. Built in the 16th century as a way station for horse-drawn carriages,
the three-hectare domain features a helicopter landing pad, a sensor-based-thermography
security system, 130 computers and seven plasma screens for videoconferencing.
The domain is De la Source, and its master is French businessman Thierry
Ehrmann. He uses the 6,900 sq m of interior space as his home, which he
shares with two teenage sons, an 80-kg Danish dog and two girl-friends,
as well as the headquarters of the Server Group, an umbrella for the 13
tech companies he has created.
who describes himself as a Freemason with an anarcho-Marxist philosophy, is intent
on pushing the envelope when it comes to social contracts as well as technology
developments. "I have always lived in a tribal fashion," he says of
his penchant for cohabiting with several women simultaneously. "We show each
39-year-old iconoclast shows no particular respect for the establishment, however.
He says he is a co-founder of a secret global group called Net Nobility, wich
includes 865 rich young techies interested in preparing the day when the Internet
will change everything. "The internet is a fabulous revolution that will
transform not only market sectors but all social contracts and put even the nation-stake
in question," says Ehrmann, who not surprisingly has a penchant for wearing
black. For the last 15 years he has been bringing the revolution to the world
of the databanks by mining publicly available information on a given subject,
enriching it and putting it online. In doing so, he has upended certain traditionnal
business sectorsthe law, medicine, the global chemical industry, international
brands and patentsby making arcane information available, transparent and
searchable on the Internet.
And changing for the privilege. His latest project
is Artprice.com, wich helps dealers and collectors determine the fair value of
fine arts. To create this databank Ehrmann put together the results of 4 million
auctions plus other art indexes and benchmarks as well as information about more
than 231,000 artists from the 4th century to the present. To acces the databank,
an art lover needs a subscription$20, the minimum gets you 20 searchesbut
soon anyone will be able to search the databank on a per-minute basis and be billed
via phone bill. Ehrmann also provides wholesale rates for banks, insurance companies
and other businesses that put valuations on fine art. He may be his own best customer.
He claims to save around $28,000 on an André Vincent Becquerel sculpture
at last year's Biennale in Paris by using the Artprice.com data bank to show that
the asking price was too steep.
"Suspicious about prices limit the market,"
says Hans Neuendorf, a well-known German art dealer who heads artnet.com, an Artprice.com
rival that is listed on the German Neuer Markt. "Providing a degree of fairness
and realism is good for all the participants." Artnet.com recently struck
a deal with Ebay, wich will provide its customers free access to part of artnet.com's
database. The site displays pictures of the artwork and links to galleries. Artprice.com,
in contrast doesn't use images to avoid copyright issues and does not provide
links to galleries or sell art directly. An expert at Sotheby's says she uses
both, and finds Artprice.com to be more extensiveand expensive.
owns 95% of the Server Group wich he intends to list on France's Nouveau Marché
later this year. His investment bankers expect the group to have a market value
of $169 million. Only one of Server's companies is losing money: Artprice.com
which is already a listed stock. But Ehrmann believe rising traffic (4 million
searches per month) and the succes of a print edition, Art Price Annual,
will make it profitable this year.
With a personnal fortune estimated at around
$119 million, Ehrmann owns about 1,500 pieces of art. He has contributed $12 million
toward building a contemporary art museum in Lyons, wich will open in early 2003.
Called L'Organe (after the medical term organ), it aims to be the first to make
the Internet an organic part of a museum from the very beginning. Says Ehrmann,
"Art belongs to all humanity."
Art also finds ways into Ehrmann's
thinking. He says that high tech is in a "medieval period," likening
the information explosion brought about by the Internet to the revolutionary transfer
of oral knowledge to written text by monks working in quiet surroundings. To give
himself and his 90 local employees a similary reflective environment, he is building
a subterranean officenot far from the helipad.
copyright ©2001 TIME International : www.time.com