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Technology

Wendi Deng-backed Artsy wants to change the way people buy art

Artsy wants to create the world’s largest marketplace for art and is among a growing band of companies leveraging technology to demystify and open up the once-stuffy world of art dealership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 5:09pm

The days when people had to fly thousands of miles just to view a painting by a great artist such as Pablo Picasso are long gone, thanks to the convenience of online art sites and improvements in digital picture quality.      

Now Artsy, an online art platform co-founded by Chinese-American businesswoman Wendi Deng Murdoch, is seeking to change the way people find and buy art by connecting users of its website and app to galleries and museums around the world, allowing them to mine big data functions, participate in live auctions and even preview how a painting may look in their home via the use of clever technology. 

Its recently-introduced augmented reality (AR) function allows users to ‘project’ an art work on to a wall and ‘see’ how it might fit into their living room. AR is a form of virtual reality where the real world is expanded upon or enhanced in some way through the use of virtual elements.  

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Deng Murdoch, once married to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, co-founded Artsy in 2009 with Carter Cleveland, a Princeton-educated computer science engineer and the company’s CEO, and Sebastian Cwilich, who was trained in mathematics research and is the firm’s president and chief operating officer.

“I think we’re the only art company of a certain size that is run by technology people,” said Cwilich in an interview with the South China Morning Post in late March, adding the company has always been a tech-driven company since its inception. 

Artsy, which wants to create the world’s largest marketplace for art, is among a growing band of companies leveraging technology to demystify and open up the once-stuffy world of art dealership. Competitors include US online platforms 1stdibs and Artnet, and French online marketplace and database Artprice.

“The majority of people coming to Artsy are browsing, learning and using it for educational purposes, and a subset of these will go on and buy art. This also happens in art fairs,” said Cwilich. “Artsy is a reflection of the art world.” 

Artsy’s New-York-based online platform now works with over 2,500 galleries, art fairs, museums and auction houses - including Sotheby’s and Christie’s - across the world.

There has been growing interest in China from a younger generation in contemporary art, which creates a “sweet spot” for Artsy, says Cwilich. China became the world’s second-biggest art market in 2017 amid a doubling in the number of Chinese billionaires, according to a report from Art Basel and UBS in March that year. Art sales in China, including Hong Kong, rose by 14 per cent last year, accounting for 21 per cent of the global art market, according to the report. 

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To step up its presence in China, Artsy launched a WeChat account in March with Chinese language art-related content, as a source of information for its Chinese audience. “All art collecting begins with education and learning,” Cwilich said, adding that this was the first time it has localised content in this way. 

The majority of people coming to Artsy are browsing, learning and using it for educational purposes, and a subset of these will go on and buy art. This also happens in art fairs.
Sebastian Cwilich, Artsy COO

For Hong Kong-based art aficionado Douglas Wu, gallery visits were part of a weekend routine to scout out the paintings he loves. Wu, who started collecting five years ago, is passionate about the works of young artists in Hong Kong and more broadly in Asia, especially their ink wash paintings. 

Wu, a busy senior executive at a local property developer, now uses the Artsy website and app to casually browse art works every day. With the help of Artsy he was able to contact a gallery in Los Angeles in 2016 and eventually buy an original sketch by renowned architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. 

“It’s a great platform for me to do research, get to know new artists, and establish a relationship with galleries that I’m interested in,” Wu said. 

On the other side of the equation, Artsy has greatly expanded the reach of dealers, galleries, auction houses and art fairs to a bigger global audience of potential buyers. According to the 2017 report from Art Basel and UBS, 45 per cent of online buyers are new buyers who have never visited a gallery or met the seller in person. However, in 2017 online sales only accounted for 6 per cent of total dealer sales estimated at US$33.7 billion.