Shortly before his death, the internationally renowned painter Jörg Immendorff (1945 – 2007) created a whole troop of monkeys: A series of ape-like sculptures in playful, anthropomorphic poses. Sometimes regarded as the artist’s alter egos, the sculptures became famous by their association with Monkey’s, a Düsseldorf restaurant chain launched in 2005 by the art consultant Helge Achenbach, later to go bankrupt.
In the years since, many of these figures have been put up for auction. Some have sold for up to €210,000, or $240,000. While Mr. Immendorff’s sculptures are commanding ever higher prices, there are growing indications that the artist may have played only a minimal role in creating the monkeys. His paintings have also come under scrutiny.
These suspicions have earned Mr. Immendorff a place in a very particular pantheon – the ranks of artists whose works have turned out not to be 100 percent genuine. Today, we know that not all Rembrandts come from the old master; some were made by his students. Not fake exactly, but not quite original either.
Controversy around Mr. Immendorff flared in 2008, when his painting “Café de Flore” was withdrawn from sale by the Munich auction house Kletterer, following suspicions that it was the work of studio assistants.
Mr. Immendorff himself, on trial in 2004 in an infamous vice case, admitted he regularly signed such works and authorized certificates of authenticity. Add to this a considerable number of fake Immendorffs in circulation, and we have the current murky, confused situation.
The real sculptor was Georgi Danowsky, a Bulgarian artist who was also Mr. Immendorff’s father-in-law.
Until now, the monkey sculptures have been less affected by rumors. But there is a great deal we don’t know about Mr. Immendorff’s late sculpture. Dig a little, and you will find shady dealings, questionable claims, obscure ownership, vagueness about numbers, and more.
We might ask, for example, what Mr. Immendorff’s main gallerist, Michael Werner, knew about the dubious trade in monkeys. Mr. Werner clearly recognized the artistic shortcomings of these somewhat banal sculptures, since he initially refused to accept them into his gallery. The fact that he did finally exhibit them, in 2004, was because of his then difficult relationship with Mr. Immendorff.
Mr. Werner did not want to respond in detail to accusations. He does not accept there is any “serious new information” about the case.
From the late 1990s on, Jörg Immendorff needed large amounts of money – figures in the millions – for his medical care, back taxes, drug addictions and sexual obsessions. When Mr. Werner could not come up with the cash, Mr. Achenbach, the art consultant, stepped in to help. Relations cooled between Mr. Immendorff and Mr. Werner. But around 2004, the gallerist moved to repair their relationship and regain his previous influence over Mr. Immendorff’s artistic reputation.
Mr. Werner must have been aware that Mr. Immendorff did not produce the monkeys. The gallerist first saw the plaster models of the monkeys in 2001. By then, Mr. Immendorff had been suffering for three years from ALS, a progressive and incurable neurodegenerative disease. The artist’s left hand was completely paralyzed, his right hand considerably weakened. For this reason alone, it is hard to see how the left-handed Mr. Immendorff could have made the models. In fact, he did not. The real sculptor was Georgi Danowsky, a Bulgarian artist who was also Mr. Immendorff’s father-in-law.
After the artist’s marriage to Oda Jaune (originally Michaela Danowska) in 2000, her father, Mr. Danowsky, began to help out around the studio. This “help” included making the plaster models of the monkeys, although it is not clear whether on his own initiative or at Mr. Immendorff’s request.
Responding to inquiries, Ms. Jaune’s lawyer was clear: “Of course, toward the end of his life, illness left the artist unable to complete his sculptures unaided. This is why he received technical assistance from his wife’s father, who carried out his detailed instructions. There is absolutely no doubt that Jörg Immendorff is the sole creator of the famous monkey sculptures.”
Is someone waiting for the soaring prices to peak, in order to make a killing on the mass-produced monkeys?
Experts tend to approach the bronze monkeys with caution. Their attitude has been borne out by Handelsblatt’s research into the sculptures’ production and sale. In this, all roads lead to Zürich.
Mr. Immendorff’s contractual partner for the monkeys’ manufacture and distribution was the “Galerie St. Gilles.” Purportedly a Zürich art gallery, it is in fact an offshore company existing largely on paper, whose anonymous owners hide behind Switzerland’s strict commercial privacy laws.
The gallery’s representatives, a Zürich legal firm, would not speak to Handelsblatt about its business affairs. But the company very much still exists: In December 2013, Ms. Jaune sued it for €1.2 million in missing payments. The company lost, but appears to retain the right to produce and sell all 1,008 monkeys produced under their contract with Mr. Immendorf.
But even more Immendorff monkeys remain unaccounted for. Also at issue in the 2013 trial was a separate batch of bronze monkeys, 1,021 in total, these ones just 26 cm high, which Mr. Immendorff had made for delivery to a Munich gallery. The existence of yet more monkeys disquieted even the St. Gilles gallery, whose representative fretted about them “flooding the market.”
The whereabouts of these monkeys is unknown. Is someone waiting for the soaring prices to peak, in order to make a killing on the mass-produced monkeys?
Mr. Achenbach – a commissioning agent for the Galerie St. Gilles, as well as the founder of Monkey’s restaurant – must surely have known the ins and outs of the monkey business. He was a regular visitor to Mr. Immendorff’s studio. But his representatives remain tight-lipped.
So does Herbert Schmäke, owner of the Düsseldorf foundry that produced the thousands of monkeys, large and small. As for the auctioneers, on September 30 the prestigious Cologne house Van Ham will auction five extra-large monkey figures, in what is the most prestigious listing of its “Achenbach Art Auction XXL.” Each monkey sculpture is listed at €25,000–35,000.
It is no secret that studio assistants produced the late paintings of the paralyzed, terminally ill Mr. Immendorff. So why are the people running the show unwilling to admit the same about the popular monkey sculptures? Their continued silence could hurt today’s buyers, if the market were to be flooded with thousands of copies, leading to a collapse in prices. Prospective buyers would be wise to figure out, before the auction, just how much an Immendorff bronze is worth to them.
Video: Jörg Immendorff’s exhibition in Kunsthaus Schöne.
Susanne Schreiber has been the art and culture editor at Handelsblatt since 2004. Hans Peter Riegel, an expert on the Düsseldorf art scene, published a biography of Jörg Immendorff in 2010, and has also worked in Mr. Immendorff’s studio. To contact the author: email@example.com