Round a curve on a winding road in Saint Romain au Mont d'Or, a medieval village 9 km north of Lyons, and you come upon a fortress-like compound straight out of a James Bond movie. Built in the 16th century as a way station for horse-drawn carriages, the three-hectare domain features a helicopter landing pad, a sensor-based thermography security system, 130 computers and seven plasma screens for videoconferencing.
The domain is De la Source, and its master is French businessman Thierry Ehrmann. He uses the 6,900 sq m of interior space as his home, which he shares with two teenage sons, an 80-kg Danish dog and two girlfriends, as well as the headquarters of the Server Group, an umbrella for the 13 tech companies he has created.
Ehrmann, who describes himself as a Freemason with an anarcho-Marxist philosophy, is intent on pushing the envelope when it comes to social contracts as well as technology developments. "I have always lived in a tribal fashion," he says of his penchant for cohabiting with several women simultaneously. "We show each other respect."
The 39-year-old iconoclast shows no particular respect for the establishment, however. He says he is a co-founder of a secret global group called Net Nobility, which includes 865 rich young techies interested in preparing for the day when the Internet will change everything. "The Internet is a fabulous revolution that will transform not only market sectors but all social contracts and put even the nation-state in question," says Ehrmann, who not surprisingly has a penchant for wearing black. For the last 15 years he has been been bringing the revolution to the world of databanks by mining publicly available information on a given subject, enriching it and putting it online. In doing so, he has upended certain traditional business sectors the law, medicine, the global chemical industry, international brands and patents by making arcane information available, transparent and searchable on the Internet.
And charging for the privilege. His latest project is Artprice.com, which helps dealers and collectors determine the fair value of fine arts. To create this databank, Ehrmann put together the results of 4 million auctions plus other art indexes and benchmarks as well as information about more than 231,000 artists from the 4th century to the present. To access the databank, an art lover needs a subscription $20, the minimum, gets you 20 searches but soon anyone will be able to search the databank on a per-minute basis and be billed via phone bill. Ehrmann also provides wholesale rates for banks, insurance companies and other businesses that put valuations on fine art. He may be his own best customer. He claims to have saved around $28,000 on an André Vincent Becquerel sculpture at last year's Biennale in Paris by using the Artprice.com databank to show that the asking price was too steep.
"Suspicions about prices limit the market," says Hans Neuendorf, a well-known German art dealer who heads artnet.com, an Artprice.com rival that is listed on the German Neuer Markt. "Providing a degree of fairness and realism is good for all the participants." Artnet.com recently struck a deal with Ebay, which will provide its customers free access to part of artnet.com's database. The site displays pictures of the artwork and links to galleries. Artprice.com, in contrast, doesn't use images to avoid copyright issues and does not provide links to galleries or sell art directly. An expert at Sotheby's says she uses both, and finds Artprice.com to be more extensive and expensive.
Ehrmann owns 95% of the Server Group, which he intends to list on France's Nouveau Marché later this year. His investment bankers expect the group to have a market vale of $169 million. Only one of Server's companies is losing money: Artprice.com, which is already a listed stock. But Ehrmann believes rising traffic (4 million searches per month) and the success of a print edition, Artprice Annual, will make it profitable this year.
With a personal fortune estimated at around $119 million, Ehrmann owns about 1,500 pieces of art. He has contributed $12 million toward building a contemporary art museum in Lyons, which will open in early 2003. Called L'Organe (after the medical term organ), it aims to be the first to make the Internet an organic part of a museum from the very beginning. Says Ehrmann, "Art belongs to all humanity."
Art also finds ways into Ehrmann's thinking. He says that high tech is in a "medieval period," likening the information explosion brought about by the Internet to the revolutionary transfer of oral knowledge to written text by monks working in quiet surroundings. To give himself and his 90 local employees a similarly reflective environment, he is building a subterranean office not far from the helipad.