Wondeur is a game-changing modern company, using cutting edge artificial intelligence technology to - they hope - revolutionise the way we think about art and art collecting. Sophie Perceval founded the company alongside Olivier Berger, and here tells us about her love of art, her hopes for its future, and the collaboration with ARTE Generali.
How did you first get interested in art?
I grew up in Paris surrounded by avant-garde art and music. I spent a lot of time at the Centre Pompidou as a kid. I was never big on drawing or painting myself but I loved to look and look and dive into pictures, like you would into a portal.
What was your art journey after that initial discovery?
When I was 22, I spent 6 months in Madrid studying Economy and Political Science. The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen Bornemisza became a second home in the day, and at night, discussions with my friends would often turn into heated debates around contemporary art being a scam or not. That’s when I realized that art was my true North Star. Although I was trained in business, my first job out of school was publishing exhibition catalogues for the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. I often joke that the 5 years I spent at there were my “art degree”; I worked with Paul Virilio, Cheri Samba, Daido Moriyama, Raymond Depardon, Adriana Varejao, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ron Mueck, Rinko Kawauchi, David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Jean Paul Gaultier... Working with living artists was the best job I could ask for, and I fell in love with the printing machine’s unique smell of ink and grease.
When did you start Wondeur, and what was the inspiration?
With my co-founder Olivier Berger, we started to work on Wondeur in late 2017. But the story really begins in 2012, when we created an experimental documentary platform for emerging artists that was pushing the boundaries of art discovery online. We won tons of awards for it, it was quite cutting-edge and entirely self-funded. Within the platform, we had an innovation lab where we developed experiments with augmented reality and leveraged formats like gifs for storytelling. As strange as it may seem, the artificial intelligence project Wondeur came out of this lab. In 2017, we realized that no matter how much our audience connected with an artist and their art, when it came to buying a piece, there was a major gap: the price of the work would always feel irrational and unjustified, whether it was $100 or $10,000. Most people simply didn’t know what to think of the price they saw next to a piece they loved. Artists themselves struggled to put a price tag on their pieces. We started to ask around and figured out there was a massive problem in the market because very few people knew how to simply explain art prices. This lack of trust in prices seemed like an important problem to solve if we wanted to expand participation in the art market. Wondeur started as a simple artificial intelligence model you would prompt with an artist’s name to get the most likely price range for their work based on their past achievements.
What exactly is Wondeur, how does it work?
Today, Wondeur is a complex system of datapoints we collect on a daily basis to document artists' careers and compare them on a global scale. We look at everything experts look at when they assess an artist’s career: solo and group exhibitions in museums, commercial galleries, non-profit institutions, publications, residencies, awards, public sales… We compare and track trajectories in order to understand what is going on in regional ecosystems. Since we can identify what causes prices to evolve in the long run, we can detect risk on value (upward or downward), measure the impact of art institutions on artists careers, measure the evolution of bias across time, track leading indicators of future growth for entire categories of artists. By doing all that, we bring clarity to how art behaves as a cultural and financial asset.
This seems like really impressive, game-changing technology – what are your hopes for the future of Wondeur?
Our vision is that the more people know about art and the art market, the more they feel included and want to participate. Understanding how the cultural value of art is established and how that translates into financial value is important when you love art and want to support artists. Understanding the contribution of non-profit organizations and commercial galleries to artists’ careers is critical too. Recognising that female artists or artists with specific cultural backgrounds are selling at lower prices for no other reason than their demographic category, recognising that commercial galleries participate in the creation of cultural value and that auction sales don’t actually make careers, this all leads to different decisions as art collectors. So our hope is that Wondeur brings more fairness to the art world, that those who contribute to creating cultural value are rewarded for it, all along the value chain, from artists to gallerists to curators to collectors.
Wondeur is currently working in partnership with ARTE Generali. Where do you see the added value for collectors, brokers and art market players?
We love working with ARTE Generali because they are extremely focused on empowering collectors and brokers through technology. They have deep expertise in art, but what truly differentiates them, from our perspective, is their vision of a more transparent and better informed art ecosystem. Their offering integrates the best of insurtech with real human experts, so, as a collector, you get the best of both worlds. Being able to access momentum analysis on artists in your collection, for example (the functionality known as MarketTrends in the ARTE Generali app), is fantastic for a collector and their broker, and that raises the bar in terms of shared knowledge and expertise. This kind of new offering is paving the way to a more efficient art market with less information asymmetry.
Do you think that technology could ever interfere with the enjoyment of art?
If technology means access to knowledge, the short answer is no. Unless you believe ignorance is bliss. I always loved maps, I couldn’t live without mobility apps that help me plan my route. The art world is increasingly interconnected, international and complex. If we can leverage technology to better navigate it, I’m all for it. The end goal is to get to this moment of discovery. This can happen in the physical world, as it can happen online, and it doesn’t matter, as long as the encounter with art happens.
Do you see AI becoming more important in the art world? How?
There are two ways to look at artificial intelligence: a better version of us, imperfect humans, or a machine that helps us be smarter, faster. AI may become artists’ or curators’ assistants, just like David Bowie’s Verbasizer randomized sentences to help him write lyrics. We like to think of the machine as becoming the artist but I think it’s a fantasy, there is always a puppet-master.
Where do you see the future of art and technology's relationship going?
Technology provides tools to create, share, promote, trade... it’s already impacting all of these dimensions along the lifecycle of an artwork as artists, collectors, dealers, museums each embrace technology at their own pace. We started to incorporate NFTs in our analysis very early on. Digital art has been around for over 40 years but it was lacking this element of trust and certification to thrive, so NFTs are a great step forward for artists working in this medium. It’s a new way to get money in the pocket of artists and bring new audiences to contemporary digital art. The historical depth of our data allows us to understand risks around NFTs today. What we see is that there is definitely a market bubble for some artists. Our job is to look beyond the hype of sales results and focus on what drives change in the long run.
Interviewed by: Eddy Frankel, author of ARTE Generali