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Buyers neglect the emotional return

The ballroom of the Hamburg City Hall gleams golden in the glow of the chandeliers above the magnificently set tables.

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Buyers neglect the emotional return

The ballroom of the Hamburg City Hall gleams golden in the glow of the chandeliers above the magnificently set tables. Between the main course and dessert, Princess Katharina zu Sayn-Wittgenstein will be in charge of the evening, surrounded by wall-filling paintings, from the “primeval landscape of the Elbe valley” to the “modern Hamburg harbour”.

For the next half hour, the auctioneer swings the gavel at a desk, driving up the bids. She keeps an eye on the bidders, encourages them, appeals to their generosity or cheers up the hall with a snappy comment on the current lot. She skilfully stirs up a little competition between two bidders. But today no paintings are going under the hammer here: "5200 euros for a meal with twelve people with the director Ulrich Waller on the stage of the St. Pauli Theater ... First, second, third ... sold."

Sayn-Wittgenstein loves and lives her job, everyone in the audience can feel that. The art historian, who has a doctorate, works on a voluntary basis on this evening. The proceeds of the auction, which she supported as the Hamburg representative of Sotheby's at the time, benefited the Hamburg Cultural Foundation. Now the princess, who attaches more importance to her doctorate than to her aristocratic title, has taken on a new task in Hamburg.

In the future, Sayn-Wittgenstein will be managing director for Germany in the new representative office of the Viennese auction house Dorotheum in Hamburg. "I've always looked forward to Mondays," she describes her life in her dream job, "and I will continue to do so in the future."

The Dorotheum, which claims to be the largest auction house for art and applied art in Central Europe, currently has branches in Munich and Düsseldorf. Founded in 1707 by the Austrian Emperor Joseph I, the parent company with its palace is in Vienna, in the immediate vicinity of the Albertina art museum. Traditionally, the Dorotheum has branches in Europe in London, Rome, Brussels, Prague and Milan.

Now it puts Hamburg on its own map and advertises with "700 auctions (annually), 40 categories, 100 experts and more than 300 years of experience." The Viennese traditionally call the Dorotheum "das Pfandl" or "Aunt Dorothee" - that The company also runs a pawn shop with branches throughout Austria – and is happy to lend jewelry or paintings to aunts.

When it comes to the size of the auction houses, they have to be viewed differently depending on the division. In the area of ​​the top-selling providers in continental Europe, the German auction house Ketterer currently quotes statistics from "artprice, database fine art auctions", which summarizes the groups "Old Masters, 19th Century, Modern Art, Post-War Art and Contemporary Art" for the year 2021.

According to this list, Ketterer Kunst is in third place ($97 million) behind Sotheby's with a good $350 million and Christie's with a good $250 million ($97 million) and ahead of the Dorotheum ($84 million). The 35 other sectors of the Viennese, from jewels to vintage cars, jewelery and watches to historical scientific instruments and antique furniture, are not included. Traditionally, the Dorotheum does not publish sales figures.

The growing global art market, whose turnover for the past year is estimated at around 50 billion euros according to the Swiss bank UBS, offers grounds for expansion. Around 40 percent of sales are made at auctions, around 60 percent in the art trade. "The art market is clearly growing," confirms Sayn-Wittgenstein.

“Thanks to the Internet, many people have become aware of the art market. You can view the catalogs online and bid online, which is very attractive for a large, global target group. In the past, there was also a reluctance among many to turn to large houses," says the expert. Many providers have also been using online auctions for years. In recent years, sales worldwide have been between six and eight billion euros.

Sayn-Wittgenstein told WELT AM SONNTAG that the Dorotheum is not breaking new ground with its move to Hamburg, because there are already customers all over northern Germany who will have a local contact point in the future. The new rooms in the former Kruizenga delicatessen at Maria-Louisen-Strasse 9 in Winterhude are to be used for exhibitions as well as for appraisal days in the above-mentioned categories.

The appraisal service is usually free. It's not just about the authenticity and value of the objects, but also about the provenance, i.e. the origin. Finally, both sellers and buyers must be sure that they are not dealing in looted art or illegally acquired objects.

Sayn-Wittgenstein chose the Viennese during the lockdown period when she asked herself "what else I want to do in my life and in my job". She has a long personal history with Vienna. Her father was German ambassador to Austria in the 1980s, she herself studied art history in Vienna and has friends there from that time.

After a long journey together with Sotheby's, for which Sayn-Wittgenstein set up the representative office in Prague in 1992 and managed the Hamburg branch from 2003 to 2022, she decided to start over again, which she is now gradually putting into practice in order to “consolidate all my experiences bring in I'm not just an art historian, I'm also an advertising saleswoman, and I'm excited about making the Dorotheum better known in the north."

The rooms on Maria-Louisen-Strasse are currently being renovated and remodeled. Sotheby's, which like Christie's and other providers has a representative office in Hamburg, has just opened new premises - on two floors of a renovated old building at Mittelweg 21 a. Stefanie Busold, who is well connected in Hamburg, has succeeded Sayn-Wittgenstein as representative of the British company. The trained art dealer represented the Berlin auction house Villa Grisebach in Hamburg for the last 15 years. Like her predecessor, she is approaching her new role with enthusiasm.

What Sayn-Wittgenstein finds attractive about the new job is the broad spectrum on offer at the Dorotheum, which recently shone with new records. A “Penitent Magdalena” by Titian fetched 4.1 million euros and in the summer a painting by Maria Lassnig was auctioned for 1,378,000 euros – an auction record for a work by the artist. The estate of soprano Edita Gruberova was recently sold.

When it comes to auctions, the English like to refer to the “Three D” for “Death, Depts, Divorce”. In the coming years, discounts will increasingly shape the market. Sayn-Wittgenstein describes the situation as “a generation change is currently taking place, for example in those entrepreneurs who built up their collections in the post-war period”.

“Newcomers,” notes the new managing director, “do not always have to be collectors. You can also buy a work that you like for your own living room”. Whereby high-quality works on paper "are often offered in the four-digit range." Sayn-Wittgenstein warns against seeing the purchase of art as an investment. “Many buyers are disappointed when the price goes down. What they completely neglect is the emotional return. You enjoy a work of art for years, you would have to put money into that,” she says, “after all, you don’t shy away from any expense for transient things like a good meal or a visit to the theater.”

Of course, Sayn-Wittgenstein also has a counterexample to the falling price. Years ago she herself bought a print by Gerhard Richter in the museum shop of the Beyerle Foundation in Basel. "It was an unsigned edition of 500, mounted on Alubond, which cost 1,600 francs. So I asked myself if that was unreasonable,” she smiles. “One year later, the abstract work was being sold for 30,000 euros. That was the madness of the market. Because I liked it so much, it stuck with me for a long time. I then sold it in lockdown.” That’s how it should be, the buyer’s ideal relationship to art: “You buy out of passion and when the price goes up, it’s good.”

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