By Thane Peterson What exactly is it that makes art and photography collectible? Given today's technology, you can create as many exact copies of a work as you want. If you love, say, the famous "spot" paintings of the British artist Damien Hirst or the photos of Sebastiao Salgado and Helmut Newton, why pay thousands of dollars for a relatively rare one? Aren't prints in large editions of 500 or 1,000 just as beautiful, especially if the photographers and artists make and sign them themselves?
How you answer that question will go a long way toward determining your attitude toward Eyestorm Media, a London-based company that operates www.eyestorm.com. It's a Web site that commissions large editions of works by known artists and photographers and sells them at a fraction of what similar, limited-edition pieces would cost in a gallery. The site, which was launched in December, 1999, handles such well-known artists as Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Jeff Koons, and Hirst, as well as work by photographers such as Newton, Salgado, Richard Misrach, and Robert Mapplethorpe.
COFFEE-MUG MONETS. Eyestorm's idea is essentially to treat living artists as "brands" to be exploited through all sorts of commercial avenues, from licensing to hotel art. That's not all that different from what has happened to van Gogh and Monet, whose images are so prevalent these days -- on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs -- that we hardly notice them anymore.
But van Gogh and Monet are dead. You have to wonder how a living artist is going to be changed by being marketed as a brand. You also have to wonder: At what point does art start to morph into pure commerce? To me, something essential about the beauty of art gets lost if it's just another category of commerce -- to be exploited and marketed at will.
What's interesting about all this is how rapidly technology, the Internet, and globalization are transforming the art market. Until very recently, rarity was one of the main qualities that determined the value of a painting or sculpture. Multiple images, such as engravings, lithographs, and photographic prints, were usually reproduced only in small editions of a few dozen. Now, edition sizes are exploding. And that's just the beginning -- if Eyestorm's concept works.
A few of the works on the site cost a bundle. Two Warhol self-portrait photos went for $12,500, for instance. But those are unique images. A couple of black-and-white nude photos by Newton, Cyberwomen I and Cyberwomen 7, illustrate how much cheaper eyestorm.com's commissioned work can be. They're in editions of 500 and sell for only $500.
DIGITAL PRINTS. Opium, a small (19 inches by 17 inches) signed print by Hirst, perhaps the best known of the so-called Young British Artists, sells for just $750 in a edition of 500. The larger, 42-inch by 50-inch Lysergic Acid by Hirst, which is in an edition of 300, goes for $3,000. The Hirst works are digital prints on archival-quality photo stock of images the artist created for eyestorm.com.
Eyestorm's backers, who include some very savvy investors, see a big market to be tapped. "[Eyestorm's] mission is to democratize good artists and art at affordable prices," says Richard Kramlich, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, a prominent San Francisco venture capital firm that is one of the site's backers. So far, Eyestorm has raised $25 million, including a $14.2 third round of financing that came mainly from the National Endowment for the Arts and brokerage founder Charles Schwab (as a personal investment) last October.
That last transaction is impressive because it was made when dot-coms were already crashing and burning. Among the casualties were such excellent art sites as eArtGroup.com and Artnet.com (the latter recently shut down the consumer art auction end of its business and restructured after burning through something like $35 million). Schwab and Kramlich aren't just smart investors, they're also both prominent art collectors. So it's significant that they think Eyestorm can make a go of it. In fact, Kramlich predicts Eyestorm will generate sales of $10 million in 2001, which would make it a phenom for a fledgling art site.
DIVERSIFIED PORTFOLIO. Eyestorm's business model is pretty ambitious. When I first noticed the site early last year, it was mainly devoted to photography. But, presumably under the influence of Kramlich & Co., it recently rejiggered its strategy and is now building a diversified portfolio of operations.
In addition to consumer art sales through the Web site, these include corporate sales (providing art to hang in companies, hotels, and such), and a sourcing division (hooking artists up with "creative industries" that can buy or license their images). There's also a private-clients unit that sells art to wealthy people on a commission basis, much as a traditional art dealer does.
Eyestorm also is moving into bricks-and-mortar retailing by opening a store in the tony Soho section of New York. In London, it's launching a joint venture with the Saatchi Gallery, which is owned by adman Charles Saatchi, one of the world's most prominent art collectors. The venture will include a retail space in the courtyard of the Saatchi Gallery. The main goal is to market works by Young British Artists, whose output Saatchi collects in large volume. (Remember "Sensation," the Brooklyn Museum show New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to shut down in late 1999? Those were works by YBAs from the Saatchi collection.) Eyestorm also has a deal to market the photos of Magnum, the famous Paris photo cooperative that includes such legendary photographers as Henri Cartier Bresson.
ASTRONOMICAL SUMS. As a buyer, however, you have to wonder how valuable Eyestorm's commissioned works are as collectibles. Two of the striking trends in the art market today are the huge run-up in the price of photos and the willingness of collectors to pay astronomical sums for images that are not unique. Last fall, at a Christie's auction, for instance, a photo called Prada II, part of an edition of six by the German photographer Andreas Gursky, sold for $270,000.
You would think that works from editions as large as 1,000 would not have much value. But they may have. Eyestorm CEO Don Smith notes that Valium, an earlier print by Hirst -- in an edition of 500 and priced at $1,500 each -- sold out within five months. The last 60 copies of the print sold for $2,500, he says.
Some art dealers are already starting to dabble in this new market. Ken Friedman, a Los Angeles area dealer whose company is called International Art Resources Ltd., sees them mainly as a way to appeal to new collectors. "I stocked a large inventory," he says. "I really haven't begun to move them yet. But the ones I have sold have been to younger collectors who don't want to pay a high premium for established artists."
SIGNED POSTERS. Does he think the Eyestorm prints will increase in value? "They look good on the wall. I even kept copies for myself. But as collectibles? I just don't know." I find Eyestorm's photography a lot more interesting than the art. To my mind, the art prints aren't all that different from signed posters. The photos are another matter. Through my artist sister, Kristin Peterson, I recently met Richard Misrach, a prominent San Francisco photographer, in his studio, who confirmed that after Eyestorm commissioned editions of some of his photos, he did the prints himself.
An exacting collector might gripe that prints made in such large volumes are bound to have a "mass-produced" quality. But I doubt if it makes much difference. The globalization and branding of art may be inevitable. But it's disturbing, nonetheless. I'm of the idealistic school that views artists as the seers in society who tell us things about ourselves that we don't necessarily want to hear. If living artists start to become global brands, we're going to lose something as a society. I'm not sure I can define exactly what it is, but it's something important. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online