Who: Judith Milberg, Artist Where: Munich Judith Milberg is multitasking…
Who: Dr. Philipp von Württemberg
Where: Hamburg, Germany
The art expert, Managing Director and Chairman Europe of the traditional auction house Sotheby’s also has a big name as a private person: Dr. Philipp Duke of Württemberg comes from one of the oldest German noble families, which can be traced back 950 years.
In 1996 Philipp von Württemberg began his career as a furniture expert. Today, the half French (his mother is Princess Diane von Orléans), who grew up at Lake Constance, manages Sotheby’s European operations on the continent. When he is not in Frankfurt, Paris or London, the Duke flies to the other end of the world to buy pictures. In Hamburg, I meet the art jetsetter, who has a Bavarian accent, for a relaxing cup of tea.
MyStylery: You joined Sotheby’s in 1996 as an 18th and 19th century furniture expert. But there is no market for old furniture today. Why?
Philipp von Württemberg: The young generation imagines an antique peasant dresser at most as a unique feature in the apartment. While our grandparents’ houses were full of antiques, including a very stiff and uncomfortable sofa set. Today the Zeitgeist is different and traditional furniture is unfortunately no longer in demand.
MS: Unfortunately you say …
PvW: Yes, because I think old furniture is beautiful. But no one is still cleaning silver today. Even porcelain must be dishwasher safe. The castle-like lifestyle is out of style.
MS: You yourself grew up in a castle.
PvW: That’s true, but with modern influences. My mother, who is an artist, has been collecting contemporary art during my childhood. So I had access to modern art very early on.
MS: How do you furnish nowadays?
PvW: I have separated myself from a lot of furniture over time. Instead of carpets, I prefer wooden floors. The move from London back to Germany was the definitive end of heavy, opulent curtains. However, one room is still very English in style, a kind of reminiscence of childhood. I love the stylistic mix, which is why we have some old masters as well. Between two contemporary pictures hangs a big, golden Baroque mirror and I am often asked if it was a Jeff Koons (laughs).
MS: At 14, you wanted to become a furniture restorer. An unusual career aspiration for a teenager, right?
PvW: Indeed. In the castle of my family there was some furniture, where the plaster crumbled. That was the challenge for me. At a restorer in Ludwigsburg I learned the basic craft. Above all, I understood the furniture, its structure and its history. I have no problem with getting my hands dirty. At some point I realized that you earn money faster with the trade. At flea markets I bought beautiful old things for five Marks and then sold them for double. Without the experience of restoring furniture I would not have been able to become a furniture expert.
MS: The art market has changed since the turn of the millennium. Art is becoming more and more an investment object.
PvW: When you collect with passion and consideration, art automatically becomes an investment object. You should look more closely at established artists than at young ones, in which you maybe invest 10,000 euros a year. Well-known artists are fast with 100,000 and more. Here one should very carefully consider whether these are artists who are evolving.
MS: How do I know if and how an artist develops?
PvW: You never know that. One has an idea, a feeling. Watch young artists over a couple of years and see what happens. Some disappear after two or three years from the scene. I find some artists schirch …
MS: … Schirch?
PvW: … Schirch is Bavarian and means awful in the sense of outwearing (laughs). What applies to Jonathan Meese. I just had to have that. My advice: to buy a big and a small picture from artists, then – if one artist develops successfully – you can sell the bigger one, keep the smaller one. Not advisable is a purchase just for investment. After all, art comes from the heart and not by calculation. People invest in limited watches and rare luxury cars and already think about the possible resale value when purchasing them. I find that sad.
“From the heart and not by calculation…”
MS: Art collecting is now considered to be bon ton and many collectors are willing to pay astronomically high sums of money. Can the market still serve this hype?
PvW: The hype will continue to be served for eternity. In the past, there were fewer artists, but fewer collectors. The demand today is huge, according to the offer, which is certainly justified by the globalization. There are various art academies, an army of gallery owners is ready to establish the young graduates. And then they serve those who think they have to collect. 20 years ago there were maybe 100 collectors in Germany, today there are 700 top collectors in this country alone.
MS: The art market has developed rapidly and internationally. Where else can you find niches?
PvW: The Asian market is interesting, both for us as an auction house and for collectors. My wife and I are collecting contemporary Chinese artists such as Kusama, Liu Ye, Czeng Fanzhi, Xu Bing, Yue Minjun and some European contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer or Gregor Hildebrandt, who inspired me from an early age. I do not buy art because it is hyped by the big galleries, but because I like it.
MS: Are the new ones different from the old collectors?
PvW: Yes, because they are faster, risk-takers, the money seems to be no big issue. Something like 20,000 Euros are spent quite easily, while our grandparents had to think about such a high investment for a long time. People today race over the big fairs like the Frieze and before Art Forum, sometimes buying without watching the artists. It feels like winter sale. 70-80 percent of all artists fall through the grid.
MS: Have you ever been mistaken?
PvW: I bought artists whom I was convinced by. Suddenly they were gone, perhaps unable to withstand the pressure. Even if the investment went down in such a case, I still love the pictures. Not always consistent with my wife’s idea. Art that my wife does not like hangs in my office (laughs).
MS: What do you recommend to young collectors?
PvW: Who builds a collection, must take his time and constantly observe and compare the market. It’s like a stock package that you do not leave to yourself. There is enough art today for smaller budgets, such as editions, fantastic paper works, photographs. Nevertheless, do not buy everything that is called art. Rather, the danger for young artists is that they go up too fast with their prices. An artist must be allowed to develop and not be at the same level as, for example, a Picasso.
MS: Are there any new trends in the collectors scene?
PvW: The so-called luxury goods, such as cars, jewelry, photography, design. A market that has grown tremendously fast. At the Frieze Masters in London, I was fascinated by an African mask that was very contemporary in its clean lines. For 20,000 euros it was offered. In contrast, a work by Tom Wesselmann from the series “The Smoker” for one million. One can certainly discuss which one is of better quality.
MS: Can you even compare that?
PvW: Not really. But it shows that you have to have a sense for aesthetics. The beauty does not always have to be expensive.
“The beauty does not always have to be expensive.”
MS: Evidently, insecurity leads one to hide behind big names instead of acting beyond the mainstream.
PvW: Exactly. This also applies to luxury cars. Ferraris, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche are the four brands that run well.
MS: Isn’t the market for old-timers grazed at some point?
PvW: There is a very small group of collectors with big garages. Others buy one or two vintage cars, which they then drive.
MS: What are you driving?
PvW: I have a Mercedes 190, born in 1957. Beautiful. But I do not need a second or third car. The car market is limited. Collecting pictures is something else, because pictures can be stored.
MS: Your most spectacular experience as an auctioneer was Alberto Giacometti’s “L’Homme qui marche I”, which provided 104.6 million Euros in 2010. The sculpture was at that time the most expensive piece of art ever sold at an auction. Where there other experiences you like to remember?
PvW: I was initially an expert on 19th-century art, and so often in private houses and castles or in their attics, where I had spotted the stocks with a flashlight. I discovered a so called ‘Sleeper’. My first spontaneous impression was that the pale, green-faced Maria on wood could bring between 6,000 and 8,000 Euros. The picture was then identified by topex experts as one of the rare works of the Spanish painter Luis de Morales and went to London at the Oldmasters auction, where it was estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 Pounds. In the end, the Prado in Madrid got the surcharge for 550,000 Euros. And every time I stand in front of it with my children, I say, look, I found that in an attic.
MS: Are there any disappointing moments in your business?
PvW: It surprises me that at charity auctions people are reserved and do not bid. I stand in front of the audience and there is nothing left to do but wave the objects through with a smile. Charity falls by the wayside.
MS: Can you feel at what time an object has been exhausted in the bidding process?
PvW: I notice that within the first second the object is called out. The room lacks any oxygen, people yawn and do not bid. If then even the charm offensive is of no use, you have to remain cool as an auctioneer: sold and gone.
MS: You even waited a minute with the Giacometti. Motionless.
PvW: That felt like ten hours (laughs). The tension was felt despite absolute silence. Just like the will of the individual bidder. And then there is this one crucial moment. In that moment he does not care. Then it happens that he puts one on top of it. The Giacometti went from seventy over one hundred million.
“You should live with the art.”
MS: The today’s collector’s scene does not seem to begrudge each other anything.
PvW: It’s more about saying I have something that you don’t have. I first discovered it, bought it first. A collector who has just purchased something good is understandably proud and wants to show it to others.
MS: You have never parted with any part of your personal collection. Where do you leave everything?
PvW: That’s actually a problem (laughs). I have enough space in the house, a big office and now two warehouses. A real collector does not say that he has no space left.
MS: You should live with the art, you said. But you don’t do that by putting them in the garage.
PvW (laughs): It’s a collector’s principle to know you have it. To the chagrin of my family, I try to hang pictures every now and then. For every newcomer I find a place to admire him. If I buy a new suit, I would like to put it on immediately. I once bought a picture of Gregor Hildebrandt, it was so big that I could not hang it anywhere. That’s why my advice is, that looking at a picture in the original, is the most important thing when buying. Colors, shape and also the frame play a role. A bad frame destroys a picture. A good frame, on the other hand, makes a bad picture better. Tea tastes better from a nice cup than from a simple glass.
MS: Do you love tea?
PvW: Yes, although I drink a lot of coffee. The disadvantage of coffee is that I only drink it with plenty of milk and sugar. While I drink the tea black, which is healthier. As a kid, I hated tea. At the school in Friedrichshafen we always had tea with our food, especially herbal tea. Why don’t we drink water? I asked myself. I still do not like chamomile- and peppermint tea at all. It was not until my time in London in the 1980s that I discovered drinking tea again. My favorite is Lapsang Souchong. It has a calming effect on me.
MS: You carry the big name of a former, ruling house. You said that responsibility and tradition mean a lot to you. How does this manifest itself in daily life?
PvW: A name obliges. My children got this taught from an early age. And it’s not just about things such as table manners. Nevertheless, we are in a different context today, living in the big city and not in a castle in the countryside. The children were at boarding schools in England and now study in the USA. They come together with different people and get new impulses. You can only improve if you are open to new things and ready to work on yourself.
MS: You yourself have married within the high nobility, your wife is Duchess in Bavaria. Is that intended by your house law?
PvW: Our house law was unchanged since 1828, until we changed it together with my father for the first time in 1994 and that will not be the last renewal. My parents are very young and open in their thinking, which is why two of my brothers married commoners. We live in another time, the monarchy has not existed for more than a hundred years. Also house laws must adapt to the time. After all, we are no longer living in the Middle Ages.
MS: What would you have become if you had not made a Sotheby’s career?
PvW: Artist. I love to work with my hands. I would like to weld metal and build sculptures. If there is something to fix in our house, the task will automatically be handed on to me. Screwing and sawing is exactly my thing. My favorite store is the hardware store. BvH
Contact Philipp von Württemberg
The Interview series „Meet me for tea“ is sponsored by KPM – Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur Berlin.
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More MyStylery interviews you’ll find here.