What do you think about impressionism

Gerhard Richter : The arbitrariness factor

Alfred Schmela was Düsseldorf's most important art dealer when, in the autumn of 1964, he made it possible for the young painter Gerhard Richter to have his second gallery exhibition. Schmela showed, among other things, the blurred black and white painting of a woman walking with a strangely tense hand position. The picture “Secretary” went to the collection of Gustav Adolf and Stella Baum, married people from Wuppertal who were among the more important players on the Rhenish art market at the time. While the money is usually divided equally between the gallery owner and the artist, Schmela kept two thirds to himself. "Yes, what do you think?", He is supposed to have said to Richter. “It's a huge risk for me. Do I know if you will ever become something? "

The huge risk of yore now hangs in the Neue Meister gallery in Dresden's Albertinum and is estimated at seven to eight million euros. That would correspond to a thirty-five thousand five hundred and fifty-five times increase in value. The painter himself earned 150 marks from his picture.

It's understandable that Richter doesn't like to talk about prices. "This is just as absurd as the banking crisis," he said at the press conference for the opening of his "Panorama" show in London about the price increase, "incomprehensible, silly, unpleasant".

When the pictures have left his studio, the artist, who is now 80 years old, no longer has any control over them. Then come the curators, the critics, the dealers and the collectors, and then there comes the audience who distrust the judge so much. Who sets the prices and who is willing to pay them is a difficult game to see through. It has made Richter the currently most expensive contemporary artist. How did Richter get so expensive?

One of the people who should help with the answer to this question is Dietmar Elger. The art historian, checked shirt, brown jacket, is, so to speak, the master's representative on earth. From 1984 to 1985 he was Richter's secretary, after which he wrote a biography of Richter, since 2006 he has headed the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden, and anyone who wants to know which work was in which hands and when, has to ask him. Elgers is working on a five-volume catalog raisonné. To do this, he has to make continuous phone calls, write to and visit collectors and persuade them to at least briefly remove the cardboard from the frame so that he can register what is on the back of the canvas. "There is so much movement in the market at Richter that you can never fully understand who owned which picture and when," says Elger.

In Elger's book about Richter you can read how resolutely and confidently Richter pushed onto the market when he was in his early 30s, how he himself organized exhibitions and printed invitations with artist friend Sigmar Polke. Right from the start, Richter was a control freak, who explained precisely to his then Munich gallery owner Heiner Friedrich how he imagined hanging and texts, and who impatiently offered to take care of reporting himself if necessary. Conversely, Heiner Friedrich was important for Richter's career start because he not only exhibited Richter's works, but also bought them himself. "As a result, there was relatively steady income for Richter," says Elger.

Even then, his choice of gallery owner was decisive for Richter's current status. New painting became popular around 1980. "If Richter had ended up with Michael Werner at the time and had got into the Baselitz, Lüpertz, Immendorf group," says Elger, "it would have turned out differently." Richter decided on Konrad Fischer. The gallery owner placed him in the context of conceptual art and minimalism, which, as would later become apparent, also made it easier for the painter to make the jump to New York.

It was 1983, shortly before this jump, that the Düsseldorf art consultant Helge Achenbach asked Konrad Fischer for pictures by Gerhard Richter. Achenbach, today a bon vivant with a gray mane and the gentle, confidential tone of the entrepreneur, can still remember the moment well. With relish, he mimicked Fischer's tone when he led him into a back room: "I still have a couple of candles for you. Nobody wants to koofen the kitsch pictures. ”One of these candle pictures reached the record price of 11.98 million euros in London last October. Helge Achenbach got his for 18,000 marks.

Achenbach estimates that around 150 Richter works passed through his hands. So he, the art market mastermind, is a good advisor when it comes to the enormous margin between two sums spent on the same picture. At the end of the 1970s, Achenbach had stood in Richter's studio to talk about his idea of ​​advising companies on setting up art collections. "Richter listened to that at the time and said: really brave."

Since then, the two have repeatedly fitted out insurance and bank buildings. Achenbach looks after the Rheingold joint collection and organizes VW events in New York's MoMA. After the Elbe flood, he organized an auxiliary auction for the Albertinum in 2002. The painting “Fels” donated by Richter brought in 2.6 million euros and laid the foundation for the restoration. The donation was also good for Richter's market value. The "rock" was the first abstract Richter image above the million mark.

One could be satisfied with an answer from the Berlin gallery owner Gerald Winckler, who says, “It is a market of supply and demand”. But does that explain the exorbitant development for a relatively young oeuvre? The banker's widow Lily Safra recently paid $ 20.8 million at a New York auction for another abstract painting. "I would have paid 30 too," she said afterwards and gave the picture to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The idea that not only work time and color are paid for a work of art, as with any craft, but also the name of an artist, arose in the Renaissance. The formula “width plus height times factor” comes from impressionism, which Richter also followed in his early phase. Width and height, that's the material; the factor, that is the arbitrariness.

Today, Marian Goodman's New York gallery is the only address where you can buy a new judge, alongside Kiyoshi Wako's Tokyo branch. It was also Goodman who, with an exhibition in 1985, helped the star painter break through on the much stronger US market. Since then, Richter has sold out every exhibition, says biographer Elger. The Americans loved the German who managed to hold onto beauty and romance precisely through discreet conceptual coolness. In 1986 Helge Achenbach sold his candle to an American collector for a price three times higher. "I felt that Richter's pull was going west."

When Achenbach sold a Richter to one of the most important collectors in the USA in the 1990s and who told him beaming with joy that he would now hang next to Cézanne, Picasso, Rothko and Pollock, it was clear to him “that Richter has arrived”. And that the $ 180,000 price tag was way too low. Today, Achenbach estimates, the picture is worth 15 million.

It must have been around 1990 that Richter said goodbye to fixed formulas for pricing. The wall had fallen, new markets emerged, the stock exchanges were booming, and Richter's prices were no longer linked to fixed rules. Coincidence? When his picture “Two Lovers” achieved a record result in February 2008, the real estate crisis was just approaching its climax. The price that art achieves shows the growing global economic divide. Investors who would otherwise have invested in foreign exchange, companies or funds are looking for safe values. An artist who is already expensive represents such security. Especially since Richter is seen as a “contemporary classic”, as the Berlin art dealer Gerald Winckler says. "Many collectors of classic modernism are now buying Richter watercolors and hanging them next to Beckmann and Kirchner."

Gerald Winckler is one of around a dozen dealers who are bringing Richter works back onto the market. He comes to those who shy away from public auctions, who refuse to grant the auction house the 30 percent share or who want to sell without the ex-wife asking for her share. Now Winckler is sitting in his gallery under a photo of Sigmar Polke jumping in the air. Winckler, Kordjacket, Denkerstirn, gets involved in a game. The point is to make a list on which the actors in the art market and their influence on the performance of a work appear on a scale from one to five.

The gallery owner makes the start: five points. In consultation with the artist, it determines the prices at which new works enter the market. “In the meantime, the primary prices are even approaching the secondary market.” When asked, Marian Goodman simply says: We do not provide any information about prices.

The auction house: five points. It is free to set estimates as high as desired; it creates desire through exclusive offers. Often Gerald Winckler also offers. "But mostly it doesn't work." Because the buyers exceed the market value when they are intoxicated. As an informed, calculating expert, Winckler is simply not the target group here.

The museum: “Seeing the originals creates desires.” Hence three points for the Tate Modern because it is able to create an event with charisma, two for the National Gallery because there are hardly any wealthy collectors in Berlin.

The collector: two points. "The collector legitimizes the prices, but only a few really have an influence, for example by collecting an entire group of works." But: "Collectors are multipliers. They show the works to friends and arouse interest or build their own museums. "

The critic: two points. He creates trust through recognition. According to this, its influence is probably inversely proportional to the value of the work.

The art historian: one or two points. Good essays can convince curators to take artists to important exhibitions. They tend not to be interested in collectors.

Articles like this: zero points.

Richter's status is the result of interaction. With him, and this is a stroke of luck, all of these institutions have harmonized from the start. His work has long been distributed among so many collectors that its total value can no longer decrease, as Winckler explains. A third of all pictures is theoretically available, "but the demand is always higher than the supply".

And if you wanted to buy a judge now, would you have one there?

"I would have an abstract oil painting, 61 by 71 centimeters, 800,000 euros."

Can you act?

"No. The biggest discount is that you can buy the picture. "

And if you wanted to buy all of Richter's almost 3,000 pictures at once, what would that cost?

Winckler hesitates. Dietmar Elger lets himself be persuaded to do a cautious bill on the phone. “A little over a billion,” he says.

“It is clear to me”, Gerhard Richter last said in an interview with “Welt am Sonntag”, “that art has always been connected with money, which is why there was fantastic art in Holland or Venice and not in Russia and Poland. It just works in this strange, hard, cruel way. "

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page