from the top: editions by Laura Paperina, Norbert Schwontowski and Elin Hansdottir, photo by Graeme Vaughan / artberlin.de; edition by Louise Bourgeois, photo by Yvonne Amankwa / artflash.de; portrait Katharina Bauckhage, photo by Julia Baier
In the market of selling art online, some have made an attempt to go big in the past years; most of them failed. Although society seems to be comfortable with buying every imaginable product via the Internet, the online art sales are still only growing slowly. This brings up the question how online art sales might develop in the future. Is it a necessary step towards a democratic distribution of art by opening up the market to any potential buyer, or is it just another way to satisfy society’s greediness for consumption – to leave the haptic, creative and creational nature of art and thus, its aura behind? I posed these questions to Katharina Bauckhage, who is the founder of artflash and a former organisation member of Documenta 11 and 12. Her Berlin-based project Artflash is an elaborately selected online shop for art editions, which, according to Bauckhage, aims to diminish barriers that young collectors might be confronted with. Every second week the site presents two limited and signed editions, usually varying in a moderate price range from 100 to 1.000 Euros and quickly selling out during the ‘flash sales’. Showcasing editions from up-and-coming artists, such as Jon Measures and Antje Dorn, to the established ones like Louise Bourgeois, Raymond Pettibon or Jörg Immendorff, artflash wants to establish a democratic approach between the art world and its consumers.
Anneli Botz: Katharina, how did you come up with the idea for artflash?
Katharina Bauckhage: Years ago, the former curator of Künstlerhaus Bremen Susanne Pfeffer, recommended me to buy the edition “Das Welt” by Norbert Schwontkowski out of the Künstlerhaus’ selection. I ended up buying something else, but a couple of years later I again came across this exact work by Norbert Schwontkowski on the Künstlerhaus’ newsletter. They still had about 12 copies of the edition to the same price, as they sold it years ago. I could not believe it! The work was about seven years old by then, Schwontkowski had meanwhile become quite a famous artist.
This made me wonder if there were more editions like that and I started an extensive research and looked into the archives of German Kunstvereine, publishing houses for editions and printing houses. I was surprised by the potential I began to discover.
Now that everything is up and running: how do you select your artists for the website?
For once we get recommendations by some of the Kunstvereine, publishing houses that specialise on editions or publications like “Texte zur Kunst”. I am travelling to archives of art houses and collectors. If you do not have any hint or information about a piece, you really have to dig deep sometimes and of course I am always looking for the hidden treasures, the Trockels, Tillmanns and Meeses.
The final selection for the website is mostly an intuitive and emotional process, but we always follow a certain kind of routine where we combine an up- and coming artist with a more established one. Those two have to complement each other on an aesthetic level and also need to have a decent balance in matters of the price range, because the edition of the more established artist will of course be the more expensive one.
How often do people contact you about a work they retrospectively saw in artflash’s online portfolio, but missed while the selling was still going on?
This does happen from time to time and it is definitely worth asking because there are singular cases of a return that we might then place with another customer. Last year a buyer was asking for a copy of a Sigmar Polke edition. This one had been sold out, but by coincidence we had another copy of a Polke edition from months before and made him very happy with this alternative.
What happens with the pieces that are sold after the two weeks of ‘flash sale’?
Basically, the final transactions with the different institutions or collectors we buy the works from is executed after the pieces are sold, because we do not want them to travel for unnecessary reasons. Therefore, we get one of the editions delivered before we start the selling. This one is framed, photographed and put online. And finally when the selling process is carried out, we receive the complete edition and prepare them for the delivery to the buyer. That’s why it might take up to three or four weeks until a work is delivered, but handling this topic with sensitivity is very important to us – on both, an economically and an ecologically level.
You do not really do previews, why is that?
We only do previews one day before the works go online and even this one is only for customers who have signed up for the newsletter. This way we want to keep a certain moment of surprise and also raise the urgency to be one of the first to buy something great that might be gone in a matter of hours. The idea of a ‘flash sale’ is actually what brings most excitement and fun for our buyers. And apart from that people are generally able to develop a feeling for our taste, once they browse our portfolio.
Speaking in terms of Walter Benjamin, one could argue that the aura of an art piece gets lost in the online sale, as opposed to a usual gallery sale. How do you feel about that?
Of course I am familiar with this argument but I personally do not agree. First of all, we try to display the works from the best possible angles. We use high-quality photographs of the works, providing a precise idea of the texture, state and signature of the object. Plus, we also show them in relation to the typical interior of an apartment to give the buyer an idea of the proportions and how the work could look in a room. This offers as a good and almost three-dimensional impression. Apart from that, buying art is still an emotional and an impulsive act of decision-making: “do I like the piece, or do I not like it?”. And this process is something that you can quickly carry out online. So far, none of our buyers has either requested to see the work in reality before buying it, nor has one of them been unsatisfied with the haptic result of his or her purchase after receiving it.
What is your opinion on art rating systems that work with a certain logarithm like artnet.com?
In my opinion, art is not only an aesthetic item that one likes to look at or wants to decorate a home with, but after all it is also an investment tool. In this context, and as long as they really make sense, I do think that art ranking systems actually have a valid point and can give some guidance of where the tendencies of the market are going.
How many times have you bought one of the editions that you sold online for yourself?
It does happen occasionally and it is definitely very tempting. Especially if you see how fast one edition is sold out. Luckily I am in the position to think about it beforehand, while dealing with the pieces before they go online.
Do you think that a wrong communication of art is often responsible for turning people off and make them rather shy away than getting deeper into the material?
Yes, definitely. It can be very intimidating when people only use specialised terms. This is something I was confronted with quite often while I was working for Documenta and I think it is a shame when people leave an exhibition feeling as if they know less than they used to before. We should rather meet them halfway, if they already made the first steps to show their interest in art and guide them, instead of pushing them away with overcomplicating the subject matter. Something else I do not understand are press-releases and texts about art which truly can be a pure imposition. If you actually manage your way through the forest of complex sentences and specified terms, they might leave you with the feeling that you have either completely missed the point or like you did not gain any information at all. In this sense, Germany is definitely still some kind of ivory tower where art historians understand themselves as scientists that need to persevere the art historian legacy. And of course that is important too, but unfortunately the consumer is left outside too often.
Artflash just celebrated its first year anniversary. If you recall the past year with, how do you feel about it and what kind of changes do you want to make in the near future?
In the past year we showed 25 different editions. Most of them sold out, which makes me really proud. I am also very happy about the fact that we managed so well with the distance between Berlin, where artflash is based, and L.A., where I am currently living. I think the idea of the ‘flash sale’ worked out very nicely and since we were the first business to try something like that in the art market, I am really happy about how people understood our idea. In the future we would like to improve our layout and become bilingual to conquer the international market. Obviously this will also lead to a logistical challenge, which is accompanied by many other important things such as insurance and transport, but I am very optimistic and looking forward to expanding.
Currently we offer a special deal until the 24th of December, where we show new editions of small circulations each day in the context of a Christmas-Calendar-Superflash sale. In the past days, both editions of Richard Prince and Friedrich Kunath were immediately sold out and works by Gerhard Richter, Jonathan Meese, Rosemarie Trockel and Daniel Richter are still to come.
What do you want to avoid Art Flash to become?
We never wanted to appear as an online gallery, which is also why we put so much emphasis on a well-curated selection of artists and editions that will not overexert. We do not want to become a platform for experts, but rather aim on creating a forum that everyone who has interest in art can easily get into. It was never about showing all the art that is out there, but instead about displaying a thoughtfully curated selection.
What was your favourite discovery of an art-edition so far?
Well, first of all I still really love “Das Welt” by Norbert Schwontkowski with it its golden dust and the free-floating god. And since this was the edition, which actually led to the founding of Artflash, it is probably the most personal one. It was also amazing to find an edition by Jonathan Meese in a stone-printing, located in a backyard in Berlin-Kreuzberg.
If you had a choice, which pieces would you dream of discovering one day?
Well, an affordable edition by Sophie Calle would be a great find. But I also have Baselitz, Baldessari, Andreas Gursky and Olafur Elliasson on my very own treasure hunt list.
from the top: portrait Katharina Bauckhage, photo credits GraemeVaughan; screenshot from artflash.de