Philosophy and History

Specialization, expertise, trust

These are the guiding principles of our business, and all of us who work at Grisebach subscribe to them. And we also bring a love for art to the table that never becomes merely routine.  If we had to name one basic trait shared by all those who have worked with us throughout the three-decade history of our auction house, it would be enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for each individual work of art, whether it be a masterwork or a secret shared only by the cognoscenti. The joy of discovering an outstanding piece of art in the company of kindred spirits, and then sharing it with an entire network of collectors and researchers alight with the same passion – this, and not just the commercial aspect, is what makes our work truly rewarding.  In the period intervening between the publication of a new catalogue and the corresponding auction, our Villa becomes a sort of temporary museum. A place where a new surprise could be waiting around any corner.  One that can sometimes be so dramatic as to demand a redefinition of art history. 

Lifting spirits

It goes without saying that Grisebach also serves as marketplace for the benefit of our clients, and a highly successful one at that. And this track record is due in no small part to the fact that we have also set ourselves ambitious goals as a center for art-historical research. After all, an up-to-date approach to researching artworks and a responsible way of trading in them are two sides of the same coin.  In both cases, the ideal is to arrive at a transparent, intelligently researched “biography” for each work of art, to the ultimate benefit of both consignor and bidder. And what better place for this than Berlin, where research into the origins, cultural influences, and provenance of art remains vibrant? A stone’s throw away from numerous world-famous museums, we are practically embedded in one of the world’s densest academic landscapes for the study of history, art, and culture.  Ideal preconditions, in other words, for obtaining appraisals and expert opinions in short order. “Compared to the slow-moving ‘oil tankers’ of the global art trade, Grisebach is a highly maneuverable speedboat,” is how our founder Bernd Schultz once put it. 

Anyone who visits our premises on Fasanenstrasse for the first time will immediately sense that it is the art itself which always gets first billing. “Every time I come here it lifts my spirit”, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Eric Kandel once wrote in our guestbook. A sentiment shared by many others who have come to develop a sense of kinship with the international Grisebach community over the course of three decades. The doors of our Villa are always open wide for the global community of serious art lovers. But it is the personal touch that truly sets us apart.  If you come to us for advice on fine art, you hardly find yourself in some kind of impersonal beehive. On the contrary, you will immediately receive personal attention from our staff members, who will gladly bring their expertise to bear on the specific enquiries and requests which you entrust to them. In fact, it often turns out that the consulting support we provide will cover not just auctions, but other spheres as well. 

Genius loci

A personal touch of family does not contradict the international atmosphere reigning at Villa Grisebach. Our founder Bernd Schultz, originally from the Hanseatic city of Bremen, has shaped the fundamentally worldly orientation of our thinking and work. So the growing globalization in the international art trade is something Grisebach had long been familiar with. After all, the city of Berlin is once again becoming what the founders of Grisebach had so fervently envisioned some three decades ago: a world capital of culture. Fostering new friendships through a love of art and culture, while keeping historical memory alive and passing on the best of Berlin to future generations in an enlightened spirit of intellectual curiosity and tolerance: This is the guiding mission of our firm. 

Globally influential

From the perspective of cultural history, Grisebach has actually exerted a significant influence on the way in which German Classical Modernist art is currently perceived around the world. Thus, Grisebach can rightfully claim to have appreciably contributed to the high regard now enjoyed by modern German art from the Impressionist and Expressionist periods, as well as from the Realist and New Objectivity schools. Grisebach is by now a recognized authority in these fields, also when it comes to documenting the history of the corresponding collections. Small wonder then, that museums, private collectors, and academic institutions alike are keen to draw on the collective expertise of Grisebach’s many specialists.

The Grisebach network

Grisebach’s long track record of success rests above all on the tireless commitment, intellectual curiosity, and many years of experience of our staff.  Our reputation for reliability is due in large part to their painstaking efforts to build close, trust-based contacts with collectors, experts, museums and academic institutions, artists, restorers, and provenance researchers, both in Germany and worldwide. By now, this network comprises 30,000 people across Europe, the USA, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Australia. In addition to maintaining branch offices in Düsseldorf, Munich, Zürich and New York, we also have representatives on hand in Hamburg, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Rome, Paris, and Los Angeles. They will be happy assist you at any time with trustworthy and discreet advice, while also providing a no-obligation appraisal of your works of art. 

Exploring new horizons

The art of the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries can hardly be understood without allowing for the huge impact of photography. And so, starting in 1998, Grisebach decided to begin including regular auctions of important photographic art in its calendar. As a review from the leading German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (November 22nd, 2003 issue) put it, “The best selection of photography for this fall auction season is to be found at Grisebach  – it’s just that simple. ‘Yet again!’ one is tempted to add. Browsing the catalogue is a delight.” A particular highlight came in the spring of 2015, when Franziska Schmidt and her team were able to attain the highest price ever paid in Germany for a vintage print of the photograph “Dark Figure” (Dunkle Figur) by Werner Rohde from 1928.

In recent years, Daniel von Schacky had been instrumental in building out our work in the field of contemporary art. These steps were taken in response to the fact that the increasing popularity of contemporary German painting around the world has served to re-energize the concept of “Classical Modernism made in Germany”. 

Grisebach has also expanded its offerings with respect to 19th century art.  In-house auctions specialized in this epoch have been held since 2011 under the curatorship of Florian Illies.

In the 2012 fall season, Grisebach launched its new “ORANGERIE” department for select fine-art objects under the curatorship of Dr. Stefan Körner. Since then, this department has been holding periodic, specialized auctions for collectible objets d’art ranging from antiquity to modern times. 

Commercial success

At the time, the fresh concept and innovative style of the newly founded Grisebach auction house – as well as its focus on a limited art-historical range that it could confidently master – proved to be an immediate hit with collectors. Thus, the very first preview showing in November 1986 attracted over 2,500 fine-art aficionados.  The subsequent auction generated over 4 million Deutschmarks, putting Grisebach in the black already in its very first year of operation. Of crucial importance in this context was the formation of a trust-based network linking the specialists at Grisebach with the various consignors, experts, and collectors. Before long, the name “Grisebach” had become a byword for spectacular hammer prices and fascinating new discoveries. 

In 1988, for example, Lyonel Feininger’s 1928 work “Paddleboat Steamer II” (Raddampfer II) set a world record at a gross hammer price of 2.4 million Deutschmarks. In 1989, Franz Marc’s gouache painting “Mythical Beast” (Fabeltier), which had been appraised at 450,000 Deutschmarks, ended up fetching a gross hammer price of 3.0 million Deutschmarks. Adolph von Menzel’s “The Sheep Moat” (Der Schafgraben), a Berlin-themed painting from 1846, went on to command 1.3 million Euros in 2003, a world record for works by this German master. In 2005, Grisebach was able to secure the highest gross hammer price ever realized at a German art auction (3.9 million Euros) for “Anni,” Max Beckmann’s mysterious portrait of an unknown woman. In 2006, Grisebach was able to sell another six of the ten most expensive artworks then on offer at German auctions, generating annual turnover of 45 million Euros. The year 2011, which marked Grisebach’s 25th anniversary, saw the auction house earn an annual turnover of 59 million Euro. Finally, in the autumn of 2014, the auction house was able to set another world record for a work by Adolph Menzel, whose “Standing Suites of Armour” (Stehende Rüstungen) commanded 3.3 million Euros in an auction devoted to 19th-century art.

The high-water mark thus far for our newest venture, the ORANGERIE Auctions for Select Objects, was the spectacular collection assembled by Rohde-Hinze during the golden years of the Berlin art trade. This was painstakingly researched and documented, and took up two catalogues featuring almost 400 works. The subsequent auction in the summer of 2015 recouped a total of 6.8 million Euros, whereby the hammer rate was almost 90%. This marked Grisebach’s successful first foray onto the market for traditional works of art. 

Our founding fathers

Berlin, early in 1986: Five art dealers joined forces to establish a new style of auction house. The originator and driving force behind the project was Bernd Schultz, the scion of a family of Bremen-based merchants. Years previously, while still training as a clerk at the Lampe Banking House, he had been imbued with a passionate love for art by Hans Pels-Leusden, an inspiring force in this regard.  Two years later, he joined Pels-Leusden’s art dealership and worked his way up to partner by 1975. Despite all the limitations that the difficult geopolitics of the time entailed, Schultz never lost his faith that Berlin would one day enjoy a renaissance as a capital of art and culture. As he put it, “the idea of freedom is always stronger than the idea of oppression.” And so our founders chose Berlin as the ideal spot to give German art an international platform. 

Hans Pels-Leusden (1908 -1993), art dealer, painter, collector, and benefactor of the Berliner Kollwitz Museums had many personal connections to the leading artists of German Modernism. His credo, “He who would love art must be on fire for art.” The author Joachim Fest described him thus, “Influential art dealers have always loomed large over Berlin’s art world. As regards the 1920s, names like Cassirer, Flechtheim, Nierendorf or Ferdinand Moeller come to mind. The early postwar period was shaped by one man: Hans Pels-Leusden.”

Wilfried Utermann took over the Galerie Utermann in Dortmund as the fourth-generation descendant of the founder back in 1853, which makes the art dealership the oldest in Germany still under family ownership. Since 1970, Galerie Utermann has devoted itself to works from the German Expressionist and Classical Modernist periods, particularly those of Lyonel Feininger, Christian Rohlfs, and the artists associated with the movement known as “DIE BRÜCKE.” 

Raimund Thomas opened his Munich gallery, which he devoted to Classical Modernism, back in 1964. In a city known for being traditional and conservative in its taste, Thomas succeeded in carrying on the tradition established by the famous art dealers associated with Munich Modernism, such as Hans Goltz, Heinrich Thannhauser, Günther Franke, and Otto Stangl.

Michael Neumann, based in Düsseldorf, was a passionate lover of Classical Modernism and made art a part of his life in many ways. He developed an avid interest in photography at an early age and was known for his infectious enthusiasm for contemporary art.

Bernd Schultz and Wilfried Utermann remain partners of Villa Grisebach to this day. Our former partner Prof. h.c. Hans Pels-Leusden passed away in 1993 (see the German obituary in der Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from April 28th, 1993), while Raimund Thomas and Michael Neumann have since left the firm. In 2000, the art historian Micaela Kapitzky became a partner. In 2011, she was joined by Dr. Markus Krause and Florian Illies, also art historians.

Striving for a new style

Establishing Villa Grisebach took quite a bit of courage back in 1986. After all, Berlin was still cut in two by the formidable wall that the Communist East Germans had built in August of 1961. As a result, the affluent West Berliners were a small group for many years. Art trading was confined mainly to Cologne, Munich or international venues such as London, Paris, and New York. Yet Bernd Schultz stayed true to his vision of giving Berlin an internationally recognized auction house of impeccable standards – perhaps precisely because he was so aware of Berlin’s illustrious past as one of the world’s great art-dealing hubs. The 1920s, the golden age of Jewish art dealers and collectors that ended so abruptly in 1933, was his guiding inspiration. Making such an ambitious vision come true required expertise, focus, and bold entrepreneurship, not to mention a good deal of passionate enthusiasm. Once the decision had been made to focus on art from the early 19th century to the present day, Schultz spared no effort to assemble a team of top-notch experts in each of the corresponding periods. 

Grisebach also broke new ground when it came to the terms and conditions for its auctions. Thus, the guarantees offered by the auction house went far beyond the scope of liability customarily assumed in the art world at the time. To this day, Grisebach stands behind the accuracy of the representations made with regard to the authorship, artistic technique, and signature of the art objects which it offers for auction, subject only to the limitations of the current state of the technical art.  Small wonder then, that the August 26th, 1986 edition of the  leading German business newspaper Handelsblatt spoke of a “revolutionary” approach and welcomed the principles advanced by the new company as “transparent, client-friendly, and characterized by market realism.”