Why is the Chief Editorial Director of the online e-commerce site Art Collector’s Club writing about her own site in Forbes Magazine? Abigail R. Esman’s article surveying the field and introducing a new site called COMPANY clearly suffers from conflict of interest; she has a vested interest in the site and is not an objective source.
She makes this evident at seemingly every turn in her article, including her own disclaimer, which currently describes her as “having written for Art Collectors Club”. The description not only fails to match the weight of her title, but quietly appeared a couple of hours after the piece was published.
This isn’t exactly the gold standard of publishing Forbes should aspire to, and neither is the content of the article: it’s riddled with vague statements that read more like PR than they do reportage. Certainly, readers could have benefited from actual evidence that online collecting is occurring, rather than the random amalgamation of facts and anecdotes she provides. Of the three actual numbers Esman offers up in the piece, the earliest is a single result from artnet’s online auction, made to appear as if it were evidence of a burgeoning trend of sight unseen collecting. As it happens, the work sold was a Warhol flower painting, with a hammer price of $1,322,500; that image, though, has been selling this way for 30-plus years. This isn’t exactly news, the sale just offers a big number to make the subject look important. (In related news: Stop Mentioning Andy Warhol.)
What is new is the purchase of emerging art online, a business that has exploded to the degree that virtually no story on the subject runs without mentioning the proliferation of new start-ups and even imitators. It's puzzling then, that Esman's story fails to mention most of these players. Why wasn’t Exhibition A cited, a company that specifically markets itself to higher-end collectors and has handled work by artists such as Terence Koh, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, and Josh Smith? Art Space, an online editions website that has partnered with high profile galleries and museums like David Zwirner, Sculpture Center, and the ICA also mysteriously goes without mention. The site offers work by of well-known artists such as Marcel Dzama, Donald Baechler, and Tomma Abts and their management staff boast some of the more impressive resumes in the bunch. Co-founder Catherine Levene was the COO and General Manager of DailyCandy before working on Art Space, while her partner, Christopher Vroom is a well known patron of the arts and collector. Even 20×200, a site with a more populist appeal (art for everyone), finds itself omitted. The company sells big name editions from artists like Lawrence Weiner and Mike and Doug Starn and was named the pioneer of digital art selling this year by industry magazine Art in America. Forbes Magazine themselves placed 20×200 founder Jen Bekman on their list of “Ten Female Entrepreneurs and Mompreneurs to Watch”. [Disclaimer: On two occasions this year, I have dog-sat for Ms. Bekman. We are friends.] Of course, with the exception of Exhibition A, these companies market their art as affordable, but given that both Art Space and 20×200 offer prints over $2,500 dollars, their share of the luxury online print market isn’t exactly so small that it warrants an omission.
The company garnering the bulk of her ink, though, is the strangely named, COMPANY, a new online start-up (and SEO disaster) that has brought in $500,000 in sales since their March launch. According to founder C.J. Follini, the company is now making money, though we are never told how much or how. Certainly, the model hardly fits the upscale market Esman’s been describing: COMPANY resells art that dealers and auction houses don’t want. They are the Saatchi online of the secondary market. Here, collectors set the price, and COMPANY offers appraisal services. They also offer limited edition prints by artists, and will produce a reality-style cable show in which a guest expert will present a new artist each episode. By the end one artist will win a show in a New York City pop-up gallery.
Like Art Collector’s Club, this is the first AFC has heard of the company, which given the amount of coverage AFC dedicates to edition start-ups, causes some pause. The business model doesn’t sound very compelling, and the two angel investors — Ten Paces Capital Partners and Reen Family Office — aren't the evidence of independent support they are supposed to be, despite the 1.6 million raised for the business. After all, COMPANY's founder, C.J. Follini is also the CEO of Ten Paces Capital, and Reen Family Office, mysteriously, has just one investment in their portfolio: COMPANY. ArtINFO reports that the phone number COMPANY provides in their press release automatically forwards to Ten Paces.
This creates all kinds of questions, perhaps the more pressing being how this piece ever saw the light of day. Already, the story has spread; Marion Maneker raises an eyebrow about the company’s VC funding and ArtINFO picked up the piece and ran a profile on COMPANY. That’s how the media works, of course — we pick up on each other's stories — but ideally we try to tell stories based in actual news, not connections and personal self-interest. Forbes knows this, and Forbes knows this sort of conflict of interest is unacceptable. They need to respond by removing the story from their site, and issuing a public apology.