Interview

with Dirk Boll

Dirk Boll

Dirk Boll, managing director of Christie’s, Zurich.

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“Contemporary art is the key to the future for the art markets”

Art journalist Claudia Herstatt spoke to Dirk Boll, managing director of Christie’s, Zurich.

You’ve just come back from the London auctions and are saying that people are buying art again, as if there had never been a crisis. Is art the kind of commodity that is ultimately not affected by crises?

Certainly—as far as its aesthetic value is concerned. But obviously, prices also do not fluctuate as much as they do in other markets.

During times of crises, do purchasers focus more on top quality items?

That is the case, but top quality is always in demand, anyway. Today, however, people are not only looking for the outstanding object, but also the secure position, the canonized work.

Should art lovers also swim upstream, as it were, and continue to have the courage to make their own, individual decisions?

That is more than desirable, and an important requirement for success, especially for newer art—which has a key role to play, not just for the art market of the future, but also for the state of our society today and tomorrow.

You have been observing the art market since you were a student, and have experienced some ups and downs in the process. What can readers learn from your book about making acquisitions, in both good and bad times?

Obviously, crises come regularly—a very important piece of information for young participants in the market who are experiencing their first crises; they should not be discouraged by it. It is important to realize that it makes sense to put the so-called investment aspect aside and really buy only the things that you like.

Clearly, your experience with auction houses and cultural management has allowed you to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the complicated business of the art market. After reading your book, how should art collectors proceed? After all, you can’t make decisions for them.

You can only school your own eye, especially by going to exhibitions at galleries and museums. That is the basis for successful and satisfying collecting!

You are the managing director of Christie’s auction house in Zurich. Auction houses are always trying to score points with record sales. So are they also places for beginners, or collectors who don’t have millions to spend?

Absolutely. As a rule, large auction houses build their reputations through the high-end market, but they also sell prints, multiples, and editions for a just a few thousand euros.

The primary and secondary markets—meaning, dealers and auctions—are dovetailing more and more. How is the consumer supposed to see through this opaque structure?

Legal frameworks today make the market more transparent than it has ever been in the three thousand years in which people have been dealing in art. Thanks to Internet databanks, there is an especially good overview of the market for paintings. But ultimately, the only thing that counts is the work itself, and when a collector acquires one, it does not matter, in my opinion, if the gallery that has sold it is owned by Christie’s (Haunch of Venison) or Sotheby’s (Noortman).

As you have written in your book, it is often difficult to foresee much when it comes to purchasing decisions, and they have very little to do with the quality of works of art. Subjects change, just as fashions and trends do. What do collectors these days prefer?

Very clearly, they are interested in expressivity, in all fields. Attention spans are shrinking in every area of life, and so art also has to be quick about penetration and effect. This goes hand-in-hand with the increased significance of recognition value.

Is this true of colors, as well? You once mentioned that a green Ellsworth Kelly will not sell as well as a blue or red one.

In general, collectors are looking for works that have what is called “wall power,” and here, red has the advantage ...

Recently, the art market has been quite shaken by forgery scandals in the field of classic modernism. Auction houses are under constant time pressure, and so even though they have their own provenance research departments, something always manages to slip past them. How can the buyer be reassured?

It is easier to ascertain authenticity when there is a specialist or a committee of experts on the artist in question. However, if there is such a specialist or committee, then they have to see each and every work before it is put up for sale. Besides that, the provenance can prove or at least indicate originality. In the past two decades provenance research has become an extremely important element in examining ownership claims. International law demands that commercial art dealers practice due diligence, and that has led to the creation of a legal framework that makes it much easier to expose a forgery now than it used to be just a few years ago.

The demand for good art is increasing, but supplies are diminishing—partly because it is simply no longer available, and partly because sellers right now are rather cautious about putting things on the market. How can the market rise to meet these challenges?

There are four aspects here: first, the way that art is judged is changing. What is considered “good” today may be less in demand tomorrow. Above all, though, artists are being regularly rediscovered. Also, the art market has been expanding its fields for years, and it emotionalizes objects in order to sell them—just think of old wines, diamonds, antique cars, or memorabilia. But the most important aspect, however, are the contemporary artists who are making new works of art day in and day out.

March 9, 2011

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