“In 2012 I floated Weng Fine Art on the stock exchange. Back then we were priced at €3.20, now we are at €54.”
After first disrupting the art market by setting up the B2B Weng Fine Art in the 1990s, Rüdiger Weng went on to set up one of the first online art selling platforms, Weng Contemporary in 2014. Always at the forefront of innovation, we talk to him about the future of the art market, tokenization and his long term intentions for Artnet.
FAM: Is the future with the online art market?
Rüdiger K. Weng: Whoever is not online will be dead soon. I said this before the pandemic. But art is a much more complex product to trade online than others, a screen does not translate the emotions and haptic, and art is not a cheap commodity like a book on Amazon. But being online is not just about doing a database and offering your merchandise on a website, you need to learn how to sell online.
How do you mean?
What’s important is how you present things, people like to see that there are real human beings behind it. You can’t automate selling art like you can plane tickets. Many clients aren’t just buying with a credit card, they want to get in touch with you and understand the artwork. Helps if you speak different languages, Italian to an Italian, French to a Frenchman, Chinese to a Chinese. We are very active on Instagram and also connect to online portals like Artnet so people can find you.
It’s good you mention Artnet because I wanted to ask about your intentions for the company.
Artnet is a great brand, they have huge traffic on their website and they have amazing potential. That is why we decided to invest in it and acquired more than 26% of the company. I just strongly believe that the company could be run more efficiently.
Why can you do things better?
My company has a long and positive track record in the online art market. We know how to make money in the art market. Artnet has the world’s most important price database, so there is no reason it can’t also be a profitable business. But for us, this is a priority for next year – this year we are focused on going fully into blockchain and NFTs.
We've all read the letter from the Artnet founder, Hans Neuendorf, he is very against the whole idea.
Yes, but the economy is changing rapidly and business practices need to adapt. Our goal is not to step over others or get rich quick, but rather create the best company, work harder, buy and sell great art – that is my philosophy. I’m looking forward to working with shareholders to make Artnet a bigger and better company.
You are clearly very passionate about what you do, tell me have you always been focused on art?
I’ve always had two main passions in my life, the stock exchange and art. But my parents encouraged me to study economics. So I worked in banks in Düsseldorf and London and then got bored and wanted more emotional products and to deal with people rather than computers.
You first set up Weng Fine Art in 1995 which is focused on the secondary market and buys works that you sell to dealers and auction houses. How did that company come about?
I didn’t know collectors, so I thought of starting a B2B business. Back in the 90s you could find your potential business clients in the Yellow Pages. I had the advantage of having a good amount of capital and I knew how to get money from banks. Now finance plays a much bigger part than in 1995 when I first started out. In 2012 I merged my two interests and floated Weng Fine Art on the stock exchange. Back then we were priced at €3.20, now we are at €54. Nice return for 27 years of work.
Did things go well immediately?
Not really, it took a couple of years to find a business model that could work. The problem was no one took us seriously; the press especially. We were not from a posh city, we weren't in Art Basel, but now we are the most valuable art company in continental Europe.
Did lockdown help push your company?
The pandemic was a big breakthrough for us in terms of sales. And investors on the stock exchange noticed the resilience of our business model and our leverage and they started to buy Weng Fine Art stocks. Our shares have gone up by 800 percent since March 2020.
Weng Contemporary started in 2014 and specializes in selling limited editions online. What was the inspiration behind that move?
Because I’ve worked with Damien Hirst for years and when the market for his unique work crashed in 2008 I noticed his editions did the opposite and went up. Here was a market that worked all over the world and so I thought let’s bring it online.
What was the reaction to you setting this up?
My friends in the art world laughed at me, and asked, “do you want to open a poster shop?” Today we make a lot more profit than they do with their Picassos and Richters. In business I don’t go for what I like, I go for what I think our clients would like to buy. You are not a good businessman if your company is based on your own particular taste.
Are your parents shocked that art has been turned into an asset class?
No not at all, they saw me collecting at the same time as I was dealing art. In fact, I am doing that more than ever on the weekends and evenings. And just like a normal collector, I act crazy and pay unreasonable prices. But I separate my business from my collecting. When my staff ask me my opinion I say a "good artwork“ is one that makes us a good amount of money.
Tell me about your own art collection, I read it is now over a 1000 pieces?
Yes, it probably is. I have two main fields in my collection, abstract art from the 60s and 70s. I especially like Zero Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Nul Art, Constructivist Art. And contemporary art from the Middle East, which I started to collect when I was working as an advisor for the Ministry of Culture in Abu Dhabi. And aside from this I buy all what I love and have associations with.
Are you a workaholic?
I am one of the happiest people in the world although I probably work up to 100 hours a week. I wouldn’t even call it work, it is my hobby but I am very excessive at it. It is not really a burden when I am successful which I am now… it gives me so much adrenaline in the blood and I feel privileged and happy.
What is your opinion on the rise of NFTS?
You have to differentiate between digital art on NFTs and NFTs on physical art. To pay $300,000 for a cat moving on your screen, that cannot last. In my opinion, tokenizing and fractionalising physical artworks is the future of the market. You can split an artwork between 100s and 1000s of people. Take an artwork from a museum, sell 49 percent of it and still keep it in a museum.
How are you getting involved in this?
Weng Fine Art were invited by Deutsche Börse and Commerzbank to participate in 360Art and 360X, which will become a marketplace for art tokens. This technology is set to revolutionise the entire art business and more and more investors are realizing it.
This new technology is making you very optimistic for the future of the art market.
The future of the art market is very bright, exactly because of this new technology. The investors will take over the larger part of this market and you will have a lot more buyers and that liquidity which will mean higher prices. You will still have collectors like me who hang art in their home, but mostly it will be a market for investors. I’m not saying I really like this trend but I very much believe that it will be the future. So I embrace it.