digital disruptors | Aug 29, 2019 |
Can ArtOrigo solve antiques dealers’ data problem?

On a recent vacation with his wife, Gábor Újvári struck up a conversation with the couple seated at the table next to them. “After half an hour, the guy says, ‘Gábor, I have nothing to do with art, but I want to buy a subscription [to your site],’” he recalls. That infectious passion and enthusiasm is what has driven his art and antiques platform ArtOrigo, a relative newcomer in an already-crowded space that includes well-funded players like 1stdibs, Incollect, Artsy and more. This month, Újvári is rolling out a new initiative that he hopes will carve out a bigger slice of the market for his fledgling business—and make antiques dealers’ lives a little easier.

Újvári grew up in the antiques business: He spent his early years in his uncle’s store in Hungary—cleaning the floor, moving furniture—during the summers and after school. He became the manager at 18, then opened his own small shop in downtown Budapest, where he carried small furniture, artifacts and decorative pieces. Notably, he also developed a small website to display the items he had for sale.

At the time, most of his clients were in the United States. After a buying trip, Újvári would stage antiques from Paris and Italy in his shop window, take styled Polaroids, and mail them to New York dealers like Antiqueria Tribeca, Orange Chicken and Skyscraper. It often took upwards of three weeks to get a reply, a lag that made him an early believer in the internet’s power to transform the antiques business for the better: “As the internet took over in the early 2000s, I saw the opportunity to spread my collection worldwide,” he says. “When I got my first laptop, I called the dealers in New York and asked if they had email addresses. Then I photographed my items, scanned the photos to the computer, sent an email—and received an answer the next day. I realized that the internet was solving a problem for me. It was going to make me rich.”

In 2006, Újvári moved to the United States, spending time in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs, California. Instead of a physical shop, he sold antiques exclusively online. Though he had been courting American designers and consumers from afar for years, living in the U.S. fundamentally changed his perception of the market—and solidified his conviction that the internet was the answer. “The U.S.-based interior designer and collector had no time to visit physical locations anymore,” he recalls. By the time he returned to Europe in 2011, his sense was that the market had flipped: While online sales had accounted for only 5 to 10 percent of the average dealer’s business in the early 2000s, the decade had seen transactions move predominantly online.

I realized that the internet was solving a problem for me. It was going to make me rich.
Gábor Újvári

For the next several years, Újvári worked for an online antiques platform, building out its European presence and onboarding hundreds of international dealers. But by 2016, he was on his own and began mulling his next move—and his own venture. He saw the success of YouTube and Instagram as major cues, indicative of a massive shift in preference toward visuals and video.

After 18 months of development, the resulting art and antiques platform—ArtOrigo—launched in May 2018. Unlike many of its competitors, Újvári’s site offers short-term subscriptions (six, nine or 12-month packages), allows unlimited posting of products, takes no commission on sales, and facilitates open communication between dealers and customers. That hands-off approach is as much about market differentiation as it is Újvári’s sense of what dealers really want. “We don’t want anybody to join a new startup company without confidence,” he says. “If a client is making an offer or requesting a shipping quote through ArtOrigo, we are connecting them with the dealer, who can close the sale, collect the payment and ship the item. We don’t want to step between the buyer and the seller—we understand that there’s no room for a third-party commission here, and that we cannot say exactly what you would want to say about your product.”

Another feature that sets the platform apart in the world of online antiques marketplaces is the ability for dealers to post short videos featuring their products, events and projects. This site, which currently has a roster of about 50 dealers, already hosts more than 1,000 videos.

ArtOrigo is a family affair. Újvári’s wife, Beatrix Bikali, is his business partner; his 19-year-old son recently took on the company’s social media. Growth has been slow but steady—perhaps in large part because the site is by invitation only. Újvári is a certified appraiser of furniture, lighting, 20th-century fine art and jewelry, and has taken a curatorial path to the brands on the platform, visiting every applicant in person to assess their collection. (Many dealers on the site are also members of a recognized association like LAPADA or CINOA.)

Vetting dealers is the company’s answer to the unknowns of online shopping—sold items that never get delivered, fakes and reproductions or misrepresented products—but the hands-on approach is also emblematic of Újvári’s globe-trotting, business-building ways. “I am switching cities and countries and continents like people have breakfast in the morning,” he says. “Yesterday I was in Berlin, tomorrow I’m in Stockholm. I could fly to New York tomorrow and back the day after tomorrow.”

If we can sync products from the dealer’s site to their ArtOrigo storefront, then we solved the problem and more dealers can come on board.
Gábor Újvári

Last December, ArtOrigo raised more than $2 million in funding. The infusion of capital allowed Újvári to solve a problem that had been plaguing the site: The dealers he was meeting wanted to join, but they didn’t have the bandwidth to update their inventory on yet another platform. “They all told me the exact same story: ‘Even if you’re providing videos and the price is affordable, we just don’t have time for another one,’” he says of the feedback he received.

Újvári envisioned an application that would seamlessly link a user’s own online inventory with their ArtOrigo page—then set out to build it. “If we can sync products from the dealer’s site to their ArtOrigo storefront, then we solved the problem and more dealers can come on board,” he reasoned.

The result is ArtOrigo’s Super Sync, a first-of-its-kind technology for the design industry that connects a dealer’s online inventory to their ArtOrigo storefront. Though the proposition is relatively simple, the behind-the-scenes machinations that make it work are immense: If a dealer adds a new item or removes an existing item on their own site, or changes a product description, price or image, their ArtOrigo page will reflect that. “It doesn’t matter what kind of database you are using, we can sync your collection to our storefront,” says Újvári.

The development process for Super Sync took seven months. “The biggest challenge was addressing the fact that every website has a different database, a different story—they’re like snowflakes, where each one is a little bit different from the next,” he explains. “We had to develop a self-learning system.”

For a dealer setting up Super Sync, the initial onboarding process takes a few days. Újvári then works with his IT department to round out any discrepancies between the dealer’s site and the ArtOrigo platform manually. For now, he estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of each sync currently requires the human touch—and says that number is steadily declining as more users are brought on board and the system gets smarter. “Every single website we sync is different, and every time we sync another one, the system is expanding like a bubble—it’s learning.”

Already, the innovation is paying off: There is now a waiting list to sign up while the ArtOrigo team onboards new and existing dealers. In his travels, Újvári estimates that he has visited thousands of dealers in the past two years. “I am revisiting dealers now that we have Super Sync, and everybody who said no is starting to say yes.”

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