Meet the Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and Managing Director of Sotheby’s, Germany – the art expert with a passion for contemporary collecting and not just investing.
Since 1999 Philipp Herzog von Württemberg has been Sotheby’s Germany Managing Director and as of 2011 Chairman Sotheby’s Europe. Born into one of Germany’s oldest noble families, von Württemberg’s interest in art started when he was just a young boy growing up on his family’s estate on Lake Constance, where he would restore the antique furniture from his ancestors in the family home.
After spending time in London and completing his PHD in History of Art from the University of Tübingen, von Württemberg quickly realised that whilst he enjoyed the hands-on aspect of restoration work, it was ultimately his desire for dealing that would become his biggest passion.
A contemporary art collector himself, in 2013 von Württemberg founded the Young Collectors Club – a passion-project to help guide and inspire young collectors to build their own collections.
We spoke with von Württemberg about what it’s like to turn your passion into a profession, how the art market has dramatically changed in the last two decades, and why he made the decision to support emerging collectors.
Let’s start at the beginning – your career at Sotheby’s started in 1996 where you were an expert in 18th and 19th century antique furniture, correct?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Yes, at that time I started in the department of what was then called “Continental European Furniture”. You might think of that era as antique furniture but to me I would think of it just as furniture – furniture that’s not designed specifically for somebody is now called “antique”.
What was it about this particular period of furniture that interested you? Were you always passionate about furniture?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
When I was growing up at our house on Lake Constance we had quite a lot of 18th century furniture and other pieces of old furniture, as well as many paintings on the walls and I was always interested in touching the furniture. I’m a person that loves to get their hands dirty, I’m a handy-craft person. I’ve always loved that aspect and I would often be found in the atelier of my mother, who is an artist, helping her to clean the pencils and helping to do a bit of stone work carving. Being there, in the atelier, I started to adopt this way of my mother. As a little boy I started to touch these pieces of furniture, to look at them, to put pieces back together that might have been damaged or crumbling. I was, and still am, very interested and involved with the haptic and overall understanding of furniture.
Then when I was fifteen my parents sent me to a restoration course during the Easter holidays in a castle north of Stuttgart with a restorer who worked on art and furniture. It was there that I realized that restoring furniture is fine, but dealing with furniture is even better – you earn more and your fingers don’t get as dirty! Upon completing the course I would go to flea markets here, there and everywhere and I’d buy stuff and then sell it. I’d ask people, usually friends of the family, what they were looking for and then I was running around buying things for one DM and selling it for two DM.
All of this culminated more or less in my interest in furniture, and as I went to museums my mother would always say if you want to know something about art then you go to the museum and compare. Look at it. You learn it by looking, not by studying books (but of course I did both). I eventually went to the a Fine Art Course in London where you learn about objects in the sale room and of course coming back to Germany a year later I wanted to immediately jump into the art world, to be a dealer. My dream as a teenager was always to have an antique shop between Munich, Paris and New York and to be an antique dealer for furniture and old masters.
From then I studied Art History at the University of Tübingen and after I had completed my PHD it was at this time that I started to ask family and friends if they’d be interested in buying something, such as furniture. I would then do a service for them – I’d go to the two major auction houses in the area, and I’d watch and I’d bid and for this service, I want one percent of the hammer-price, and I actually ended up making quite a bit of money for someone so young! Within two or three years of attending these large auctions, Sotheby’s staff saw me and on the last day of the Baden-Baden sale in October 1995, the Managing Director of Sotheby’s Germany said to me “well, Philipp, you’re on the other side now. Don’t you want to work for Sotheby’s?” I replied “Don’t you want to send me a contract, Christoph?” And that was that. I was absolutely thrilled.
It’s an interesting story how you followed your passion for restoring furniture and ultimately ended up working within the realm of dealing. What is it about dealing that you find so enticing?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Dealing is to find something, then to find somebody that wants to have it, then to sell it for more than you bought it for – it’s a really simple. Another factor is that an incredible team of experts surrounds you, and you’re constantly learning about the art and understanding it, as well as talking to the client. That’s something that to this day I still find incredibly interesting. It’s not only the expertise that you have and which you can transfer to a collector, but it’s rather to actually talk to these people, different people, people that are interested in art at all different levels of wealth and experience. In addition to my love for talking to people, dealing and restoring started off as a hobby of mine that I had always had and to develop this hobby into a career, wow. To work in a field where you can incorporate your hobby into your line of work, that’s really amazing.
It grew from a real passion of yours rather just a planned or chosen career path.PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Exactly. You learn something every day with a new client, and also about the objects. You never stop to learn in this business. Understanding people, understanding situations, understanding how to do a deal in different countries because of course each country is different in how they do business i.e. doing business in Germany is much different than doing business in America or European countries. The variation is really enormous in this job.
Talking about the differences in markets, you’ve now been with Sotheby’s for over two decades and perhaps you could tell me what are the changes you’ve seen within the art market? Do you see art as becoming more of an investment object or is it becoming more of a luxury item?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
As always over the centuries there’s been a big change in the pace, and by “change” I mean how people decorate their homes. When I started at Sotheby’s it was very popular to have your home full of furniture, silver, glass, porcelain, Old Masters, with some pieces of contemporary art dotted around. Skip to today and more and more contemporary art is taking over. Twenty years ago the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s was very small and now it’s the most important part of the house. This has seen the decline in sales of art made before the 1900’s, and slowly but surely personal taste has taken over. The art market itself is also much faster – back then when you spoke with a client it took time to decide on the purchase but now decisions are made on the spot and always within contemporary and design – the luxury good market.
We’ve also seen a change in collectors. There used to be a typical collector just collecting furniture, and a collector for silver, another for porcelain, and another for sculpture. Now there are eclectic collectors who have a feeling of “I want to have the best of the best”, often-in categories that you traditionally would not have combined together. There has also been a change in how we see furniture – take the commode for example. When I was a child the commode was part of our day-to-day life: you open it and you store things in there. Now, this commode has become decoration piece. People are not collecting it anymore but rather they’re seeing it as a piece of art, and for that reason you only want to have one commode in your home not like in the past when your living room was full of commodes! Now it’s one standout piece and on top of it a contemporary sculpture and perhaps an Impressionist painting above that.
What do you think contributed to this change in the market and how collectors collect? What role has the Internet had on collectors and how they acquire?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
I think it’s the speed of communication, the speed of knowing what’s happening around the world. What I often see at fairs are people rushing from one fair to the next with the mindset of “what can I buy what can I buy”. It’s the eagerness to be the first, to buy something, to have the first tier VIP card not the second VIP card. People are buying art at fairs before the fair is even open, which is incredible! There’s a far less quiet manner and I’d even go so far as to ask is there a deep interest in the art. We are all reachable every second. If I’ve got time on a train or a plane, I log on and look what’s happening in the art world – you’ve got the catalogues, the news, the interviews and I think that’s the reason why everything is happening so much faster, particularly within the contemporary and modern departments.
One aspect that we’ve noticed is that the status of being a collector is on the rise, with them sometimes adopting the role of a celebrity in some cases and sometimes even gaining more fame than the artists they collectPHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
That’s a big issue I think. Sometimes collectors are rushing for something that they didn’t think about properly. In fact I was talking with an important collector about this exact topic recently and I said to him that explained that the collector as an investor is a minute group of people. Yes they do exist and of course are key, but the major group of our clients at Sotheby’s are collectors who are passionate about art – the art lovers, the enthusiasts. At Sotheby’s we sell emotion. Of course, one collector can spend $450 million on his/her emotions and the other $10,000 on his/her emotions, but at least the piece of art is a great piece of art for the collector. I just bought an artwork in Paris from a Japanese artist who works for months and months on the paintings, from a great gallery for €8000, and to me that’s worth the money. The artist is really making something, they’re taking the time, whilst another artist in the same gallery, and I’m not saying they’re a bad artist, sprayed paint over the canvas and it’s worth €50,000. If someone wants to buy that then absolutely fine if they love it, but it’s all about personal taste.
For example, my grandparents bought 18th century furniture, which I inherited and eventually sold off. I need to have contemporary art surrounding me. On my desk in my office I have a sculpture from a young Jewish artist, two paintings from German artists, and a piece from a Czech artist who has just left the Städelschule in Frankfurt, which when speaking about investment, this artist is now at Art Basel art fair and the prices are ten times more than what they were then I bought it. Of course when you see prices jumping up afterwards you think that you’ve invested well, but I’m not talking about investing. I feel like I have a good eye and I’m happy with that, but investing is not my main focus for what I buy.
You clearly see yourself as more of a passion-based collector than collecting for investment. With this in mind, how important is it for you to live with the artworks from your collection? Do they impact your life on a day-to-day basis?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Well, that’s the challenge of being a collector – I think to be a collector means to never stop buying. I have so many artworks in storage, including the Japanese artwork I just mentioned plus two new acquisitions. I try to buy smaller paintings so that at home I can take one paining down and hang the new one up, and my wife and children ask, “What’s that?” and then I can have a nice discussion with my children. I would love to hang everything but I just can’t.
As a collector, it’s this hunting instinct that we as humans are born with. In the past we used to hunt animals, kill them to survive, and then hang their antlers on the wall. Now, it is the same but rather than antlers my trophy, the art, is for me and within my budget. I would love to have a Warhol but I can’t afford $40 million or I would love to have a Rothko, but I can’t afford it.
Speaking on this topic, I had a client call me the other week who wanted to congratulate me on the sale of Rothko’s No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) which sold in New York for about $75 million, because he explained that he was in fact the first owner of it. He had originally purchased it for $200,000 and then sold it a couple of years later for $400,000, but if he had waited another forty of fifty years he could have sold it for $78 million. Good quality will always make its money. A good piece of art, which is sold today for a world auction record, trust me, probably not in a year but in ten or twenty years will break another world record because good quality will remain. In the real estate business you say “location, location, location” and we say “quality quality quality”. Any painting we sell for a world auction record will make another world record again, for example with the Amadeo Modigiliani that sold for $500,000 some years back, then $26 million, and now for over $150 million. Will it sell for $300 million? Yes. Probably not in the next year, but probably five to ten years. That’s how quick the market is these days.
So you’re essentially saying that because the overall “quality” of these works means that the prices will always increase?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Exactly but it’s not always down to the quality. It’s also down to the supply and demand – if there are hundreds, or thousands, of editions of the same painting obviously it’s not going to rich those sort of prices. But if it really is the only one, the deep desire for the piece is greater. When I started at Sotheby’s we had fifty top-end clients, now approaching a four-figure level of top-end clients. The amount of people who are interested in art is much higher, and secondly the growing economy does help people to buy art. If the economy goes well, there’s always somebody who will pay more than the last, but what I hope and wish for is that every collector knows something about what they are buying. Sometimes the collectors are as educated, if not better, than the experts because they buy so often. They really become experts in their own right.
Young and emerging collectors seem to have an interest in researching a lot about the artists they’re interested in, going to lots of different fairs and in general having a comprehensive overview of what’s going on in the area that they’re interested in.PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
That’s the new system these days. With the Internet we can see any artwork from any artist that we want. When I visit museums with my children if they ask me about an artwork and I don’t know it I just Google it! It’s so easy but the disadvantage is as what I mentioned before is the rushing for the next piece. This is why at Sotheby’s we are offering the option to sell privately in addition to selling at auctions, as privately sales can be less time consuming whereas selling via auctions secures the best market price.
Let’s now speak about your passion-project, the Young Collectors Club. Can you tell me what it is, how it all began, and what you would like to achieve with it?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
It all started when I was with friends of mine who also collect. We were always talking about this artist, that artwork, and of course they were often asking me if they should go ahead with that purchase, and so I started to ask the experts about the artists my friends were interested in, but then I soon said to my friends that I cannot tell them every five seconds if an artist is good or not of if it’s expensive or not, because when I buy I buy because I love it. It got me thinking to what I should do so I asked three friends to give me the names of their friends who are interested in art aged from twenty-five to fifty-five, people who already have an art collection, those who want to have an art collection, those who are interested in art, those who will inherit art, because I wanted to bring this group together. I then spoke with all of them to understand if they fit within this group of passionate, nice, funny, great people, who I would connect with artists in the atelier, to collectors both young and mature collectors who understand their interest and passion with collecting, and to special events and special storages such as the Prince of Lichtenstein’s Old Masters collection for example.
The meet-ups always take place over two weekends a year, one in the Spring and one in the Autumn and one in Germany and one not. We usually begin at a collector’s home and the next day visit the ateliers, see other collections and have a great lunch together. Now the group is 150 people and the meet-ups are always between fifty and seventy guests. This September we will go back to Berlin as it will mark five years since the Young Collectors Club started in Berlin. It’s our anniversary in a way and after five years we’re all friends and we always look forward to the next event.
Would you say that you’re helping to shape their interest and passion about collecting, rather than just looking at art as investment? Do you also advise them on how to buy to invest?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Of course they ask me for my opinion on where they can buy certain pieces, or if I think it is a good investment or the “right price” to which I always respond “the right price is always a question of if you can afford it or not.” Experts like myself and others at Sotheby’s advise clients on how to build up their collections only within their own budget, and that’s something that I love.
In a way you’re more of guidance to them rather than an advisor.PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Yes exactly that, I guide them.
Do you ever have surprising encounters with the Young Collectors Club? Can you tell us about a circumstance that stands out?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Yes! One story that stands out is the time we went to visit a collector in Baden-Wuerttemberg. We went into a typical German 1960s residential area and in between these houses there was a concrete bunker. I was thinking “oh yes, there’s going to be a great contemporary collection in here”, but as the five-meter-high steel door opened, you know what we saw behind it? Old Masters. Hung directly on the concrete walls, it was an Old Masters collector who loves to put these works in new contexts. We were astonished and this is exactly what we want to see and why I set up the Young Collectors Club. That day we witnessed a rare specie of collector.
This is definitely an aspect of collecting that we find very interesting as well – playing with the expectations, the traditions and mediums. Hopefully we will see more and more young collectors engaging with this juxtaposition more often.PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Correct. And again, I try to track down the Zeitgeist and to show them works of art such as a super silver-piece, or a fantastic antique piece, and show them how people are collecting right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen in thirty years when I’m not at Sotheby’s anymore, maybe collectors will only collect in one field, or maybe all acquirements will happen on the internet and we’ll only have virtual collections. I don’t know where it’s going to go but right now the fun part is to find a great piece, to chase it and to make the decision that it’s something you need to have. I can’t convince someone to buy something or to become a collector. It’s a time thing. You have to give people time to buy, and also time to earn money and then to spend the money because collecting art is a pure luxury. You don’t need the art, but yet you do need the art.
What about the personal stories behind the collections? Are you interested to share with the Young Collectors Club the stories behind the collections – how they started, where they’re going, and even what mistakes were made along the way?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
Absolutely. We’re working in the secondary market and we’re selling art that is second-hand and that’s the thing, even collectors are allowed, and do, turnover pages. They stop collecting something but then they find something new that they want to collect just as much, and that’s the instinct of collecting. Being rich doesn’t make you a collector – there are many incredibly wealthy people around the world who are not collecting. Collecting is a passion that you have to have in your heart. Buying art comes from a gut feeling and from the heart.
Working at Sotheby’s for over twenty years obviously means that you have a great knowledge in investment in art and dealing. Do you have any words of advice for young collectors, particularly those that are just starting out?PHILIPP HERZOG VON WÜRTTEMBERG
That’s difficult to answer. To tell someone what to buy and what not to buy, to be quite honest that’s the job of a gallery. We have to leave everyone with their own tasks – the artists produce great art which the galleries or dealer thinks is good enough to bring to the collectors, and that’s the combination. The galleries have to develop the artists, spending lots of money on them. Obviously as a collector, I go to exhibitions at auction houses, galleries and ateliers and I advise friends and collectors about what art I’ve seen and like, but I would never tell them to buy something. But you know, the more I speak about an artwork and the more passionate I get, collectors and friends probably realize and jump on it straight away anyways! This also happens vice-versa. But providing advice on “who are tomorrow’s best artists” is hardly predictable.