The very first website appeared in 1991 and explained how to use the internet. Not many companies were quick to launch online (an unknown realm for most at the time) and many that did disappeared quickly into insignificance. Artnet—which was founded in 1989 by German art dealer Hans Neuendorf—was one of the first companies to make the brave foray into the digital universe. Neuendorf’s mission was to create transparency within the art market, while providing collectors and dealers with updates on art sales all over the world.
These updates had been sent via fax previously, but in 1995, with the digital launch of Artnet, that changed. The online iteration became a constant, virtual art fair able to instantly connect a global roster of gallerists, dealers and collectors. While the mid-’90s were still the early days of the internet, it was then that Artnet began making its mark and changing the art world. To celebrate 30 years of the significant company, we spoke with founder Neuendorf and his son (Artnet’s current CEO) Jacob Pabst, about transparency, tech and art.
Launching so early in internet history, what do you think Artnet had at the beginning that made it so long-lasting?
Hans Neuendorf: Artnet had a product that everybody in the art market needed as well as the patience and determination to take on the massive work that a database of this size requires.
Jacob Pabst: We were very early and had the right products, strategy, vision and team. We have often been too early, actually. Being too early can be a challenge.
Does that same element remain relevant and crucial today?
JP: Yes, and today we have a very strong brand and reputation on top of that which certainly helps.
The mission for the site was to bring transparency to the art world, why does that remain important—perhaps even more so today?
HN: No market can function efficiently without price transparency. Dealers and auction houses in the art market thought that keeping prices secret was the key to good profits whereas every economist will tell you that the opposite is true.
JP: People want to feel confident when they buy and sell art. Transparency gives them that confidence. Any market needs transparency and access to relevant information to be able grow.
How has the Artnet audience changed over the years—are their interests and queries very different from the early days?
HN: The resistance to online transactions in art has been much reduced and continues to lessen.
JP: As market trends have changed so have the searches on our site. The contemporary market for example has completely outpaced other categories and this is one search pattern that changed accordingly. There are many more interesting trends and developments hidden in our data. Also, we attract a much larger audience as traffic has grown tremendously over the years and this year alone has increased over 20% already.
And how have you continued to change the site in order to remain relevant within the art world?
JP: There are many small upgrades and improvements launched regularly and then bigger changes or new product launches. The last major product that launched was Artnet News in 2014, which is the most read art market publication in the world today. We are very proud of that. In 2008 we launched Artnet Auctions as transactions in the art market are moving more and more online as it’s so much faster and cheaper.
Our goal has always been to use technology to overcome inefficiencies in the art market and we are very excited to see what the future will bring
Were there some significant moments—within and outside the art world—that influenced the changes at Artnet?
JP: In general, I would say technological advancements over the years have made it possible for us to do what we do, and this will continue especially as technology changes faster and faster. Our goal has always been to use technology to overcome inefficiencies in the art market and we are very excited to see what the future will bring. Outside of that, I would say that the gradual acceptance of and trust in the internet has transformed our business especially when it comes to buying and selling art online. Buying and selling art should be much faster and cheaper and not focused on only a few popular artists. This is why we started Artnet Auctions: to bring liquidity to the market. We believe Artnet Auctions will have a similar impact on the market like bringing transparency to the art world did in 1989 when we launched the price database.
What’s your proudest moment during your tenure at Artnet?
HN: The support of our shareholders during a hostile take-over attempt in spite of still weak financial results.
JP: There is not one particular moment. I am very proud about the progress we have been making overall and to be able to work together with so many talented people.
What do you hope to see on the platform over the next several years?
HN: Connecting our products better for the benefit of our users and making artworks liquid.
JP: The relaunch of Artnet. As technology changes faster and faster we are working on upgrading the entire system and launching the new Artnet which will go online incrementally in 2020. I feel like we are still only at the beginning and all our products have a lot of potential that can be unlocked with the relaunch.
Images courtesy of Artnet