Auktionshaus Grisebach

The Art of Art Dealing

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin has become a renowned art center since the fall of the Wall in 1989 but the industry is worried that a new law aimed at preventing art leaving the country will be damaging.

  • Facts


    • Auktionshaus Grisebach was set up in 1986, with a focus on modern classical art.
    • Under new managers Florian Illies and Micaela Kapitzky it is modernizing and exploring new revenue sources such as online marketing and 19th-century art.
    • Germany’s new Art Protection Law gives the state the right to decide which works of culture and art are of national interest and ban them from export.
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Ausstellung im Lenbachhaus
Auktionshaus Grisebach is currently hosting an exhibition of works by Günter Fruhtrunk. Source: Picture Alliance/DPA

In the elegant and affluent district of Charlottenburg, in the heart of West Berlin, stands an elegant villa where precious art works are shown and auctioned. Auktionshaus Grisebach was set up in 1986 by art-dealer Bernd Schulz. He recently retired, leaving the management of his important legacy to Florian Illies and Micaela Kapitzky.

The two art dealers are committed to exploiting the new wind of change that has been sweeping through Berlin’s cultural scene since the 1990s, turning the city into an increasingly important art hub. But change is also the stuff that art is made of and to capture new trends and interests of international collectors is crucially important for successful art dealers.

Mr. Illies – an art historian and journalist – became a partner of the auction house in 2012 and since then he has helped Villa Grisebach to restyle its image with the opening of a new auction hall and a more relevant online presence. Most importantly, Mr. Illies managed to convince his associates to expand the business by focusing on 19th-century art, rather than exclusively on modern classical art. It was a successful move that drew the attention of a new generation of collectors and currently generates €5 million of additional revenue.

But there are further innovations in the pipeline. The new management plans to attract more customers over the next five years by also offering works of contemporary art in addition to those of the classical modern period. Mr. Illies believes that potential customers interested in this type of art could be reached through social networks, by using original catalog designs and by organizing events together with auctions.

“We can give an object worth €500,000 much more importance here than it would get in New York.”

Florian Illies, partner, Auktionshaus Grisebach

Villa Grisebach aims to present auctions as social events rather than just commercial ones. To this end, Mr. Illies plans to use new rooms reserved for expositions as a meeting point to turn the house into a sort of temporary museum showcasing objects on loans as well as paintings for sale. The exhibition of Günter Fruhtrunk, which began on March 2, is part of this plan and is aimed at emphasizing the importance the house places on the artist, and to convince collectors to auction their paintings at the villa.

To make customers feel the enthusiasm and passion for art is one of the main strategies of Mr Illies and it makes a lot of business sense too, given that the availability of works of modern classical art are slowly dwindling and that world-renowned art brokers of the caliber of Sotheby’s or Christie’s are also vying for them.

However, Mr. Illies is not too worried about the big competitors as “German art after 1945 can boast many significant names and it is always possible to rediscover and promote artists who have had no market yet.” Furthermore, argues the art expert, “being a smaller house enables us to better focus on the single pieces of work. We can give an object worth €500,000 much more importance here than it would get in New York.”

The art business is a world in constant change as the importance and popularity of certain artists or art periods is inevitably linked to the ever-changing tastes of collectors. The religiously inspired motives of 19th-century German Romantic painters called the Nazarenes, for example, are very difficult to sell in Germany or Europe but they are greatly appreciated by Californian collectors. This is a clear indication that interest in this form of “undervalued art” will soon grow in Berlin as “what works in California sooner or later comes to be accepted in Germany as well,” argues Mr. Illies.

Shifts in tastes also occur in contemporary art and can have a significant impact on the prices. For Mr. Illies, the existence of such trends and the attempt to predict them is what makes his work so fascinating and challenging. He views these changes in taste as “waves that must be ridden at the right moment or even be created when possible.”

Frühjahrsauktion Villa Grisebach
Auktionshaus Grisebach has had a change of focus in recent years. Source: Picture Alliance/ZB

The vibrant art trade aside, German artists and dealers have had reasons for concerns recently, on account of the new Art Protection Law. This controversial piece of legislation, approved by the federal cabinet in 2015, gives the state the right to decide which works of culture and art are of national interest and consequently ban them from free trade or export, unless they are granted a licence.

According to Ms. Kapitzky, the law has caused great insecurity across the industry and led many artists to leave. Other observers are worried that the interference of the state might cause a drop in the prices of art works and so damage the market.

A further cause for concern in the industry remains the problem of stolen art, particularly common in Germany because of the extensive looting campaigns perpetrated by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. Last December, Villa Grisebach was forced to withdraw two paintings of Lesser Ury from an auction owing to the lack of detailed information regarding the history of the paintings and their previous owners.

It is precisely on account of Germany’s troubled past prior to 1945 that “it is not always possible to get a thorough background check on the paintings,” explains Ms. Kipitzky. But the research work carried out by art-dealers, claim the two managers, offers precious opportunities to shed light on the history of the works and discover possible gaps. “The art trade should be praised for this, rather than being demonized,” she says.


A version of this article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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