Interview with Ben Hartley, the new US International Managing Director of Auctionata.com
AF: Ben Hartley is Australian in origin but Newyorker for a lifetime. How did you get to direct the American headquarters of Auctionata.com?
I’ve been into the contemporary art business for twenty five years. I’ve gathered some crucial experiences including working with the Guggenheim Museum for five years, being the Deputy Director of the Museum of Art and Design, running my own consulting agency and most recently as the President of the global culture and lifestyle media company, Louise Blouin Media, where I oversaw a global staff of 400 people in 20 countries.
AF: Auctionata.com is a purely online auction house. This is not the first time you get involved into a web project. You transformed Artinfo.com from one small site to a real media site present in twenty countries and twelve languages. How do you see the future of the media. Will only the web remain on Internet and paper will coexist?
Both alternatives will continue to live for a long time. There are revenue challenges for both models and people are no longer required to go through major media platforms for their news and entertainment, so that puts into question the role of media in our modern society.
AF: So online auctions work better than the media?
Online auctions are different to traditional news and content based media. In the online auction business, we are providing buyers and sellers an opportunity to meet in one place from anywhere on the globe. The biggest issue with buying anything online revolves around trust. Do I trust that person, that platform or that company. That’s why we have spent considerable time building our international team of experts. We now have over 260 experts who vet and authenticate the items we sell. This is extremely important to our buyers.
AF: Being born in 2012 in a lobby in Berlin by the sole decision of four partners, Auctionata today has 250 employees and has reached a billion transactions. What’s the secret of this meteoric growth?
There is no secret. The starting point was a cutting edge software able to allow the auction service to be accessible from every corner of the world. Then we built a network of experts to ensure the authenticity of every piece sold on our site. People have also responded overwhelmingly positively to our offer of free and fast valuations of their valuables. They just send in a photo to Auctionata.com and we get back to them within days with a free valuation.
AF: What are the fronts you’re working on to continue the growth of the project you’ve been called to lead?
Succeeding in communicating on-line a sense of seizing the opportunity; telling the story of the artwork for sale without ever being boring, offering educational and entertaining insights.
AF: What’s the strangest job you’ve put up for auction?
The spacesuit of Laika, the Russian dog. The first living creature launched into space in 1957.
AF: And which are you most proud of?
The Patek Phillipe watch we sold for 620,000 Dollars. It’s the highest price ever reached via an online sale.
AF: What are the next steps to grow Auctionata.com?
We launch our New York auctions and retail e-commerce operations in October and we have just started accepting consignments in Italy – https://auctionata.com/intl/free-valuation
AF: How did you come to this decision?
The US and Italy are very important markets to us. There are many people eager to consign works in these countries, as well as a large buying audience. In general, consignments are a local phenomenon, whereas buyers come from all over the world.
AF: Italy, country of artists but not of collectors?
Actually, we have found that the Italian market for collectors has been quite strong, especially in areas such as watches.
AF: There is much talk about the crisis in the arts. However the art market is always rich and continues to break records. In addition, today more than ever, there is an increasing number of artists, curators, cultural projects, galleries and museums open around the world. Not to mention the phenomenon of the fairs …
If we’re talking just about the commercial art market (and not museums), in general the market is flourishing. We see countries and collectors that weren’t collecting even ten years ago, now entering the market-place. Qatar has amassed an incredible collection over the last few years, Chinese collectors are continuing at an incredible pace and that doesn’t take into account the flourishing of the art fair circuit. It’s a very interesting time for the market and we’re glad to be part of it. About $65 billion is transacted in the art world every year and only 5% of this is through online purchase. We see huge opportunities for growth.
AF: If anything what’s in crisis is the art criticism. If media projects’ revenue is dwindling, wages for critics and journalists of art are virtually disappearing.
It’s true, the traditional world of art criticism is woefully underserved in today’s society. I think that this reflects larger trends at play – less intellectual criticism and more crowd-sourced, socially driven commentary by both experts and non-experts. To read a great piece of criticism by someome like Holland Cotter in the New York Times or Peter Plaggens in the Wall Strreet Journal is truly an enjoyable, educational and hopefully inspiring experience for most readers.
The auction market has become so big and powerful that has reduced the current art theorists to endangered dinosaurs?
The auctions will continue to need the work of museums, galleries, especially good artists, and of course also curators and art critics. Artists and cultural workers are always looking for feedback. This need will never die.
AF: What’s the most peculiar consideration you’re living in the present art market?
Our online auction business is booming. We have over 650,000 people ask for free valuations, we have taken in nearly 100,000 lots for auction and sale and we have staged over 100 live auctions.
AF: Sotheby’s and Ebay reached a new agreement just this month. Is It a story to be afraid of?
No, quite the contrary. It confirms that the market for online auctions continues to grow unstoppably.