Not too long ago, it was possible to attend a prestigious art fair in a global capital where you might find two very similar works of art featured at the booths of two different dealers who might have placed wildly different asking prices on the works. How wild? Try a million dollars’ difference—or one work priced at twice its near twin.
That wasn’t supposed to happen in a world where the art market had supposedly achieved some form of price transparency. Although auction price databases had been the first—and for a very long time, the only—form of transparency and innovation in the art market, this data wasn’t widely or easily accessible. The databases that housed the information either at the auction houses themselves or in the aggregators were built with antiquated technology. In an increasingly interconnected world, price data remained within hard-to-access silos.
In recent years, the auction houses have made their data more easily discovered through search. This allowed buyers guessing at a fair price for a work of art in a gallery or at an art fair a more accessible independent reference point. That was fine as far as it went, but there’s a great deal more to understanding the importance and appeal of a work of art than a few random public auction prices.
“Relying solely on auction prices will only ever give you half of the truth,” says Christian Huhnt who, together with Dimitrios Hermann, spent the last five years building Facture. “To identify the right price for a work you have to see it in context of other works by the artist. One needs to understand the distribution of works in public and private collections and assess the likelihood of those works entering the market. Only by connecting catalogue raisonné data with auction data can you achieve this powerful 360-degree overview.”
To address the fragmentation of catalogues raisonnés and auction prices, Huhnt and Hermann have tried to think two steps ahead. What do dealers and auction house business getters need to do their jobs better that can also be valuable to art advisers and their clients, and even the broader institutional community around museums and public galleries?
The answer comes in the form of Facture, a new service launched this month. Today, Facture combines catalogue raisonné data for more than 60 of the most traded artists with millions of images and auction prices, museum inventory, and gallery listing sites. This reconciled data can show not only what a work of art sold for at auction, but who owns similar works which, as everyone knows, has an important effect on the value of a painting, sculpture, or other type of artwork.
Facture can be searched manually by entering the relevant information about an artist or a work of art. But it can also be searched by image. Upload a picture of a work you are curious about and Facture will return the relevant catalogues raisonnés or auction data. Facture will also allow you to submit a picture from your phone via WhatsApp or Telegram. Facture’s chatbot replies, identifying the work and providing its data. This feature is already being used by major auction houses in the US and Europe and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Huhnt and Hermann’s goal isn’t simply to cross-reference existing scholarship and auction prices. Their view extends toward the far horizon. The information and data surrounding works of art and the artists who made them is abundant and diverse. Combining auction prices and catalogue raisonné data is just the first step in what Huhnt and Hermann hope will be a broader project. Value in art is undergirded by scholarship. They hope to rethink and reinvent the way catalogues raisonnés are published, edited, and used. Art data is notoriously difficult to obtain. Making it accessible is only the first step in building a platform that excites interest in art, educates the market, and serves all stakeholders in the art world beyond the market to collectively build a better system for art historical legacy.
Facture is in beta, for now. Users are asked to register and provide a credit card (which will not be charged without the customer’s permission). Once the service exits beta and moves toward a subscription model, users will be asked to choose a subscription plan based on their early adopter status.