ArtList, Startup for the Art World, Closes Shop Just as It Was Gearing Up
Did their demise hinge on a deal gone sour, or on market issues?
ArtList, an online platform for anonymous secondary market sales of art, is ceasing operations. In June, during the week of Art Basel, a British art appraisal company was set to sign a deal to acquire the New York-based start-up but it went awry on the very day that it was meant to be signed. The next day, all five of ArtList‘s employees were let go, and the company summarily moved their belongings out of their shared office space at 356 Bowery.
The site was launched in January 2015 by the young, hip French trio of Kenneth Schlenker, Astrid de Maismont, and Maxime Germain. It had roughly 50 users and an inventory of some 300 works that were sold in three categories—prints and editions, unique works selling for below $50,000, and unique works above $50,000.
Currently, there are 9,000 users registered users on the site. (While anyone can view the works for sale, if you see an artwork you like, you have to register and join before finding out any more information.)
As ArtList grew, it began to focus more on higher quality consignments. Only a few months ago, they began offering for sale high value blue-chip work like a Marlene Dumas painting for $1,000,000 and an abstract work by Gerhard Richter for $5 million.
ArtList is the second generation of the company Gertrude, which was founded in 2012 by Schlenker (the company’s CEO and former product marketing manager at Google), De Maismont (its head of sales), and Germain (its designer) as a series of carefully curated pop-up exhibitions and salons in impossibly chic locales (the studio of Still House group and the home of playboy collector Gunter Sachs were just two) with artists who were either at the center of the conversation or on the cusp of being so.
While the salons were incredibly popular, they struggled to be profitable. In 2015, the founders redirected their efforts to ArtList, which is technically a trademark of Gertrude. They relied on the same group of investors, a mix of mostly collectors and people from the tech sector.
“We came to a conclusion that there were two ways of growing the business,” said Schlenker in a phone call with artnet News. Like Paddle8 or Artsy, they could raise a lot of venture capital and do things independently, or they could focus instead on building the right partnerships that could help them grow without spending money on marketing.
One such partnership was with the popular art industry site Art Market Monitor. Marion Maneker, the man behind AMM, was one of the site’s early supporters publishing posts on their site in exchange for sending out a selection of ArtList’s inventory with the AMM newsletter. That relationship brought ArtList new eyes on the site, such as one interested collector who had a work by Albert Oehlen shipped to Europe for a viewing.
It also gave sellers whose work had been “burned” in one market a way to access another market in a different part of the world, such as one collector who had been trying to sell a work in LA, which eventually lost its luster after having been shown too many times. An advisor in Tokyo who had seen the work on Instagram took an interest in it.
But while the interactions with interested collectors and advisors, like the two mentioned above, speak to the team’s ability to connect with a certain caliber of collector and audience, they often didn’t result in sales.
“I was primarily interested in supporting Astrid, Kenneth and Max because I thought they had a very smart way of looking at the art market and a sensible way of building the technology,” Maneker told artnet News over email. “The difference between ArtList and the other companies pursuing an online sales strategy was that ArtList was very targeted in what they were trying to do.”
Targeted or no, navigating that shift to secondary market sales turned out to be tricky on ArtList especially in a market headed for a correction.
Art advisor Todd Levin who knows the three founders and called them “smart and hardworking” attributes their demise to “bad timing,” and the most recent retraction of the market. “Even a modest correction—such as the one we’ve experienced since first quarter 2015—clears off the frantic 10-15 percent of frothy market action at the top of the market,” Levin said in a phone call with artnet News. “Those sorts of bubbles are deflating quickly.”
While Levin said an Internet platform might work for momentarily younger hotter artists like Parker Ito, Kour Pour, and Ibrahim Mahama, who don’t always stand up to the test of time, it’s still not a place for high-end work.
When ArtList were approached by the appraisal company who wanted to acquire them (The founders would not disclose the name of that company but did say it was 100 years old), the deal made a lot of sense on paper. They’d bring a large database of collectors and existing collector expertise and ArtList would bring a platform for secondary market sales.
“We could have a lot more clients, inventory, and sales,” said Schlenker, “and they could have a platform.”
But then ArtList made the mistake of holding back from raising money elsewhere, according to Schlenker, while committing to working exclusively with that company.
The company wasn’t as fast and efficient as they had said they would be according to Schlenker and “bled” ArtList dry with legal fees required for the negotiations. “Instead of closing the deal in a month-and-a-half, it took four months,” he said.
While the defining factor of the company’s demise was that deal, according to Schlenker, he also revealed that the business “wasn’t doing great,” and they “needed way more time to be able to become profitable.”
“The fundamental insight of ArtList was not to try to be a comprehensive portal or destination or even service,” said Maneker. “I think they were smart to look at a specific layer within the art market ‘stack’ and really try to simplify that layer.” He said that starting with funding for one idea and pivoting to another idea too far along in the process may have also been a setback.
“They made a lot of progress but not enough to outrun their burn rate. It is an old story in start-up land.”
While Daniel Palmer, associate curator at the Public Art Fund, couldn’t speak to their market prowess, he could speak to the ArtList team’s other strengths. “I have always been moved by Astrid and Kenneth’s insights into contemporary art,” he said, “and impressed by their passionate efforts to innovate.”
They had millions of dollars of inventory, from collectors in different parts of the world. “Within the first 18 months, we had over $100 million in inventory that was submitted to us. So, in there, there’s a few multi-million dollar paintings, that made the majority of this number.” There was an $8 million Calder, works by Richter, Albert Oehlen, and Danh Vo. They even had one collector wanting to sell off their entire collection of over 300 works. “It’s a market where it’s hard to do things small,” said Schlenker.
What they did offer their clients was the ability to sell work anonymously (though there was a network in place that would let buyers and sellers have some understanding of other people in the network).
It also offered transactions that happened relatively quickly—within a matter of two to three weeks—compared with the timetables of an auction house. But to some observers, its strengths may have also been its weakness.
When asked about the anonymity factor, Levin said, “Anonymity, in terms of whom I am working a specific deal with, is a very low priority. There are many more important things to be than anonymous. Rather, a seasoned art advisor prefers to know explicitly who they’re working with. People want to work with someone who is honest, trustworthy, and discreet. The anonymity factor is comparably a low priority to me.”
“As an example,” he continued, “I was recently offered a Van Gogh by a secondary market source whom I know through experience to be of highly questionable integrity. Am I going to work a Van Gogh with somebody who I think lacks integrity, or with somebody known to me who I trust, and who I’ve brokered successful deals with before?”
As for the advantage of timing, Levin said he could sell a work in two to three days if it’s the right work for the right client at the correct price.
Winding down the company, the team will have to tie all loose ends with respect to sales still pending on the site. “We’re going to contact all the buyers and sellers individually, and open sales will have to find a new home,” said De Maismont. The company does not have any inventory, so there’s no physical artwork to contend with.
“For now, it’s going to take a few weeks to figure out what we’re going to do next,” said Schlenker who has already begun, along with Germain, consulting for a new start-up that is unrelated to art. De Maismont will continue her business as an art advisor. They are currently shutting down public operations and working on ways of leveraging their assets.
“In the long run,” said Schlenker, ever optimistic about the future, “there will be a peer-to-peer marketplace for art. And I’m hoping that people can build upon what we’ve done.”Follow artnet News on Facebook.