Forbes Magazine Article on e-Commerce Art Websites Mired in Conflict of Interest

by Paddy Johnson on August 16, 2011 · 10 comments Newswire

Screengrab from Art Collector's Club

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.

These exclusions are obvious snubs, and make it difficult for Esman to talk about the industry with any authority. Frankly, after all that pruning, there's barely any industry left. In place of the real industry leaders, with real profits and real momentum, Esman pushes the business model of a firm named “Art Collectors Club” – a company nobody at Art Fag City had ever heard of. In fact, according to Google News, it's a company nobody anywhere had ever heard of: the one article Google can find mentioning Art Collectors Club is Esman's own. The site is apparently unique for offering professionally-curated exhibitions and limited-edition art works (Art We Love‘s Laurence Lafforge is amongst the ranks), even though Paddle 8, and ArtStar do the same thing. 

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.

  • Timothy Sung

    Good points. Also excluded from these fanfare articles are new models built from the ground up instead of copy/paste approaches.

    I would recommend checking as an example of an independent effort to imagine a new space for art in full context of what matters to artists. I have been a follower of this site for sometime

  • Brian Sherwin

    ‘love’ how this recent burst of online art sellers like to trash sites
    that offer artists on all levels a chance to sell. When articles like
    this touch on the history of selling art online you never see them
    mention,, or any of the other sites that
    have been around for well over a decade. If you go way, way back you will find sites like that, though never reaching a great level of popularity, helped to spearhead social networking online for artists before people even talked about social networking in that way.

    The big media sources often drop the ball on art — especially when it comes to art online. You have sites like
    Myartspace, which I worked for, that did a lot of firsts — but hardly
    received any credit for it. They had an annual $16,000, free to enter, juried art scholarship competition for art students and not one major media source picked up on it. I think it lasted for 3 years.  MAS was also one of the first sites of its kind to physically exhibit with international art fairs… Bridge (Yeah, I know. LOL), Aqua, and SCOPE — and one of the first to do the whole pop-up gallery thing in major cities. For whatever reason we never got much coverage. Perhaps it was because we did not pay-to-play with big media? I don’t know. 

    The media often has it wrong — and I do think a lot of elbow-rubbing is nothing more than an attempt to create history where there is none. Take some of the articles about VIP Art
    Fair, which I like, for example… I’ve read some that read as if VIP
    was the first time an art fair was held online… that is false. I’ve read other articles that suggest that VIP is the first online company to flirt with the idea of meshing e-commerce with the physical art market… which is absurd. I think
    part of the problem is that we have publishers and writers who are
    uninformed about 1.) this aspect of the industry. 2.) about the history
    behind it in general. Yet, every writer today is an ‘expert’ on the topic — even though I know that some of the bigger names… just a few years ago… scoffed at the idea. The naysayers of the past want to come off like they have always supported this direction now that the idea of selling art online is more accepted by the mainstream art world.

    As for the COMPANY, I never find it impressive when a company like
    this one puts down millions of artists in order to promote themselves as
    the best. It is great that they curate submissions… but do they have to put down other sites that don’t have that policy in the first place? Most don’t. What exactly are they saying? Is an artist an ‘amateur’ if he or she places art for sell on a website/network that does not curate submissions? Is an artist an ‘amateur’ if he or she sells art or prints on a personal website? I mean, what exactly is she saying?

    COMPANY has other issues they need to focus on. For example, is it me… or are they trying to pass a lot of content off as their own? See,
    In some cases COMPANY posts the entire article from other sources with a
    link to the original article at the bottom as if that makes it OK to
    post the whole damn thing. WTF It is one thing to help others gain exposure for their writing… it is another to ‘rip’ the entire article and pass it off as if your company is associated with those various publications.

    I’ve worked in this industry for about 7 years.. I’ve seen all the tricks that different companies use to establish themselves as the ‘best’… I’ve turned down working for a few big sites because I know some of what they do. They can be low at times — be it using shoddy info from Alexa or another traffic rank site in order to try and convince people that rival sites are not up to par, founders having friends purchase work to make it appear as if things do sell, sites claiming they did something first even though a rival site did it years ago, art network sites allowing what is clearly porn to be on their site even though their policy is against it… just so they can benefit from the traffic it brings in, sites that offer print on demand… but the service is no where near the quality they claim, sites that keep all staff anonymous in order to avoid frequent complaints all while claiming to have great customer support. The list goes on…

     I’m not surprised that an article like that appears on Forbes… and chances are few will call COMPANY out for it.

    I need coffee now.

  • Brian Sherwin

    Wow.. how did I botch up the sentence structure? Curse you copy & paste… curse you. LOL

  • Jim Linderman

    Good reporting.

  • Guest

    Even more left out of this article.
    No mention of Little Paper Planes?
    They have been doing this since 2004!
    Representing emerging artists, online exhibitions, publishing, licensing.
    All before the many imitators that are now saturating the market.

  • Abigail

    I have just been made aware of this article. It is so full of inaccuracies that it boggles the mind. ACC is not MY company. I was hired to write a couple of pieces for them, and I stated so in my Forbes piece. What they have chosen to call me is their business, not mine, and I have no idea why or how they came up with that title. It doesn’t take a great deal of research to see that the vast majority of the pieces on ACC were not written by me, that I do not have anything to do with the company itself, but that I have simply contributed to their content, as I have to Artnet, Art & Auction, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and dozens of others. To have written for a publication does not bequeath ownership; if it did, I would be the master of the publishing universe by now.

    Please – before publishing slanderous articles like this one, check your facts.

  • Abigail

    Note: If the “editorial director” title appeared after the Forbes piece was published, maybe they were just proud of it. I don’t know. Ask them.

  • Abigail

    I would strongly appreciate a correction being posted here, since this article is absolutely false (and libelous). To be clear : I am not and have never been the editorial director of ACC. I do not know why they call me this; but anyone who had (responsibly) covered this issue would have done the journalistically correct thing and contacted me and/or them for a statement, rather than issue false accusations. Not to have done so is, of course, gossip-rag material, not real reporting; but under the circumstances, since it has resulted in this kind of false information, I would strongly suggest a redaction.  

    • Artfagcity

      There’s nothing slanderous about this article at all. You yourself note that the company’s website gives you the title we used to describe you so it’s not exactly as though we drew the name from no where. That you claim you’re only a contributor does not absolve the conflict of interest. Clearly there was some knowledge that this might be an issue, as your disclaimer appeared a few hours AFTER the piece had been published. Shame on you. 

  • Sinceiwas12

    Excellent,Brian Sherwin   you have said what i know,and support.thank you

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