The market for paintings is confusing, and the stakes for collectors are high. Jamie LaFleur ’94 has the answers.
Jamie LaFleur ’94 can’t stop thinking about art. In fact, he remembers every painting he’s ever seen during his 25 years in the art world as painter, dealer, gallery owner, and collector. “I have an eidetic memory for art,” says the New Hampshire native. “It’s just something a little different about how my brain works.” Founder and CEO of ARTBnk, an AI-driven financial technology company specializing in art valuation, LaFleur applies his unique expertise to the $65 billion-a-year global art market, where pricing traditionally has been as opaque as it is high. Launched in 2017, ARTBnk uses sophisticated data analytics to create transparency for individuals and institutions that collect, finance, and insure art. “If all the information about a market is held by those who are selling the assets, you might have to be a little concerned about what information they’re sharing with you,” he says. By creating a first-of-its kind standard benchmark for the art world, his company is removing the guesswork one van Gogh at a time.
When did you begin to see art as a possible profession?
Art has always been a focus of my life. When I was at Williston, my advisor, Jeff Pilgrim ’81, helped me get an internship at Mirage Studios in Northampton. This was the company that produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I went on to Pratt Institute with the intention of becoming a painter and professional illustrator. But even back in the mid-nineties in New York, I could see that it would be hard for me to support myself as an artist. I ended up moving to Rhode Island, taking classes at URI, and working as a textile designer. In one of those strange nonlinear turns that life takes, I showed up for work one day and there were chains on the doors. The company had been shut down and moved to China. I answered an ad in The Providence Journal for a sales position at an art gallery in Newport. I believe they hired me because I was tall enough to reach the top shelves. But I loved it! I loved meeting people from around the world and working with art and artists. It really clicked for me. Eventually, I decided that it was time to do my own thing and I came back to my home state, New Hampshire, and opened The Banks Gallery in Portsmouth. I ran it for about 14 years.
Did The Banks Gallery specialize in a certain type of art?
I focused on 19th and early 20th century painting, primarily American. New England has such a rich history, going back all the way to Copley right up through artists like Helen Frankenthaler, who went to Bennington College. We opened satellites around the state of New Hampshire, and we worked with other galleries around the United States and did exhibitions in Florida, in New York, and out on Nantucket. I loved connecting with collectors and I built up a great group of clients. Eventually, I was acting as much as a private art advisor as a retail gallery owner. And one issue for my clients, and for me as I built my personal collection, is being able to track the value of all the art on an ongoing basis. Understanding what to sell, what to buy and at what price, maintaining insurance, all this becomes a real challenge as collections grow. We were handling paintings that are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars. And that’s what started the journey of ARTBnk.
Art appreciation is famously subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But at those prices it would seem important to have some hard data about value.
Art is not just a cultural asset. It is a financial asset. Even people spending millions of dollars can struggle with this concept. They might feel that thinking of art as a financial asset somehow diminishes it, which is just not true. I like to point to a wonderful artist named Lynne Mapp Drexler, who lived most of her adult life on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. When I first started acquiring her paintings for clients about 15 years ago, I would get them for thousands of dollars, then tens of thousands. Now paintings that sold for forty or sixty thousand dollars go for a million. It’s not that the quality of her work all of a sudden is better. The value of art is a separate thing from its quality. The market is its own entity and functions according to its own dynamics. What ARTBnk does is track and provide analysis of the market. We show performance movements in how artists are valued.
How do you do that?
You may have heard of the Case-Shiller price index. What they do is track the repeat sales of homes and then determine an annualized return based upon those multiple sales events. We apply the same methodology to art. By tracking sales, we generate a picture of what an individual artist is able to provide as a compound annual growth rate. Interestingly, the biggest growth rate in the market over the last 20 years is for artists who are living today. There are other factors than annualized return that influence a person’s decision to own art, of course. One is that you want to live with the object, a Picasso or Damien Hirst, and enjoy it every day. You get to say to friends, come over to my house and see my Bridget Riley. We refer to that as joy utility, and it might drive you to overpay. But being informed about the financial elements of the marketplace doesn’t detract from joy utility. It only helps people make decisions that are more effective for them.
Your company did an analysis of the sale last fall of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s art collection at Christie’s, the famous auction house. The collection fetched more than $1.5 billion dollars, shattering auction records. Where do you see the art market going?
I think it’s going to expand rapidly. The universe of art includes millions of artists, but the world of investible art is very small. You’re talking thousands of artists that trade on a regular basis at public auction around the world. And out of those thousands, you’re talking really a few hundred that you could consider as being able to provide investment-quality returns. I think the values of their works will rise substantially as efficiencies are brought into the marketplace. At the same time, the marketplace is growing. China has become a big, big player in global art, India has started to collect in a major way. You’re going to keep seeing this occur, and so, yes, I think art as a market and as a financial asset is going to grow tremendously.
If it ever came up at auction and money were no object, what piece of art would you go all in for?
Any one of Goya’s Black Paintings. I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid a few years back and I was just completely floored by them.