15 Minutes With a Power User: Jacob Pabst
In this series, we take 15 minutes to chat with some of the Artnet Price Database’s most dedicated users — this time it's our CEO.
There is only one tool trusted by art world insiders to buy, sell and research art: the Artnet Price Database. Its users across industries—from auction houses, museums, and galleries to government institutions—represent the art world’s most important players. We’re taking 15 minutes to chat with some of the Artnet Price Database’s power users to get their take on the current state of the market and how they’re keeping up with the latest trends.
This month, in honor of Artnet’s 30th anniversary, we sat down for a conversation with our CEO, Jacob Pabst. After taking over in 2012, he shepherded the company through the global transition to the internet age with initiatives like automated email Market Alerts, revamped online auctions, and the publication of our bi-annual Intelligence Report. Under Jacob’s leadership, we’ve stayed ahead of the curve while maintaining our place as the industry gold standard that collectors, professionals, and art enthusiasts trust.
As Artnet gets ready to celebrate its 30th year in business with exciting new initiatives, like the Art Angle podcast, we took a moment to chat with Jacob as he reflects on where we’ve been, where he thinks we’re heading next, and what we can expect from the art market.
You started at Artnet in sales in 2002. What were you doing before that, and why did you join the family business?
I studied medicine in Berlin, but eventually decided against continuing when I realized how broken the system was in Germany for doctors at that time. It was a difficult decision, but also exciting because I always had many interests, and now felt free to pursue them. I decided to pursue economics instead.
At the end of my time in school, I was involved in a startup, and eventually became more and more involved with Artnet. At that point, my father already had the vision for the business and how it could transform and support the art market. Most of our clients in the 90s didn’t even have an internet connection, so we not only had to present the possibilities Artnet brought them, but also had to sell them on the idea of the internet itself. We were way too early, always have been.
As someone who studied economics, the opportunity to really transform a market is what most excited me about working at Artnet and is a major reason why I joined the company—besides the chance to work with my father.
Tell us a bit about what it was like to be working in the art market in the early aughts. Things were probably drastically different!
No, not drastically different, but everything was definitely on a much smaller scale. The market has grown tremendously since then.
The Price Database, our first product, was already established and online by 2002. By that point, we were already the gold standard in the industry, but it took over 10 years—and a lot of persuading, breaking down barriers, and constantly fighting resistance—for the art world to fully accept this new model. No one at Artnet expected it to take that long, as the market clearly needed transparency and everyone profited from that. Having access to price information helped the market grow.
The art industry was also slow to embrace our other products as the internet became more and more popular. When we first launched Artnet Auctions in 1999, people only bought things like books and CDs online. It was way too early. But by the early 2000s, people were starting to come around to the idea of buying art online.
It’s funny, but in a way I feel we are still only at the beginning. The art market is still in transition, and only now is it starting to fully develop online.
The opportunity to really transform a market is what most excited me about working at Artnet and is a major reason why I joined the company—besides the chance to work with my father.
You see firsthand an incredible amount of data and information on the art market before anyone else. What trends do you think are developing?
There are too many to mention. The Price Database is full of interesting trends and stories, which is also increasingly becoming a focus of Artnet News and the reason why we release the Intelligence Reports.
By the way, the title of our most recent Artnet Intelligence Report is “The Art World Is Over, Welcome to the Age of the Art Industry.” The market is much bigger and more professional, particularly with the contemporary sector contributing to that growth. Not everyone is profiting from that, of course, as many artists are totally overpriced, while others who are just as talented and often much more talented unfortunately don’t get the same attention.
A macro trend that is worth mentioning is that there is a strong and growing appetite for Western art in mainland China, along with a very young collector base who go to art fairs and auctions in Asia. Another exciting trend is that there are many interesting African artists who are slowly getting a stronger presence in the market. I’m curious to see that develop further.
As you mentioned, Artnet launched fine art auctions online in 1999, well before any other company, and it’s still going strong today with an average of five curated sales a month. Why do you think it has been a successful platform for so long, particularly when the big houses are now doing online sales?
Our clients have known us as the “online pioneer” for 30 years now, so it was a logical step for many of them to buy and sell art online with a brand they trust. All the information they need to make a sound buying or selling decision can also be found on our site, just a mouse click away.
Besides that, the key to our success is the transaction speed. Artworks are offered and sold within three to four weeks at much lower costs than traditional auction houses—this liquidity is much-needed by the market, and also is embraced by young collectors who are increasingly becoming an important client base.
If you could time travel to any period in art history, what would it be and why?
There are many great artists who would be incredible to meet and see working in person, but I honestly would much rather travel to the future to see where art is heading, and what role it will play tomorrow.
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