Name: Karsten Greve Country: Switzerland Profession: Gallery owner, Cologne, Paris, St. Moritz

Mr Greve, today you are one of the leading gallery owners in the world.
How did you get started?

In the beginning I actually had no money. I needed quick sales in order not to go hungry. I also had to accept bad prices then sometimes. I worked for half a year in a rolled steel mill on the early shift. That was interesting: up front it was only foreigners and students. The German workers were about 30 metres behind us. When the molten ore came out, it was an inferno of sound and heat. But there was an incredible solidarity between those who were up front. And it was wonderful to earn 1000 marks with your hands. At the time I drove at the weekend from Cologne to Rome. I met the artists there and then on Monday morning I was back in the gallery. I also had no employees, and I don't know when I got a secretary. I lived in the gallery for many years. Until 2000 I didn't even have a private account.

You dealt with today's greats very early on.

In 1969, I was 23, I already had Twombly, Beuys, Fontana, Yves Klein, de Kooning, Cornell, Kounellis. I had a Twombly painting and showed it to my father and said: "That's my old-age insurance." He was really shocked. I still have the painting today. It's worth about 8-10 million. As a school pupil, you could buy a Lichtenstein then for 80 or 90 marks. A Beuys drawing for maybe 500. Polke cost 300 marks to buy. Polke had to pay 1500 euros rent then, a big painting cost 2000 and a drawing 300 marks. Sometimes I had a folder of works like that in my car: I sold them all in a week - for a 300 mark work I got 450.

In the 70s and 80s I also bought Calder when, although he was known, was very difficult to sell. He was really cheap then: around 30-50,000 dollars. For work like that today you could expect between 2 and 8 million.

What was the art market like at the time?

The term "Earning money with art" we haven't known in Germany in its current form. For many years in Germany, the contemporary art business was considered unserious, decadent or taboo. There were lots of Jewish dealers, but this great old artistic guard were then killed during the third Reich or had to flee - all that knowledge was lost!

And today?

It first turned around in the 80s. Between 1990 and today it tipped in the wrong direction. The only talk then was about money, e.g. "artinvestor". Or look in the FAZ or the Süddeutsche [newspapers], when they write about an auction, they don't write about the painting, but about the artist, something like "unknown, fresh on the market". Look at the academies. They teach "Culture management" there now. So a basic MBA, and how to market yourself. And then the big academies hold an "open doors" day one or twice a year, and then everything is sold. Understandable, but perverse. Suddenly, there's then an exorbitant price hike for the young ones. In the 80s I was also a consultant for ART Basel. One of the things we did then was a trade fair for young artists, called "Statements". Nothing could cost more than 5000 francs. Today there's nothing under that!

Karsten Greve in his private
apartment in St. Moritz

What do you think of the ongoing art hype?

That is such a new term, I prefer to speak of fashions. They always existed, then they collapse and disappear. A general increase in prices is apparent, and when you look at it more closely, something's not right. Most artists are not involved in it. The opposite. They become ever cheaper. Every year in New York there are 50,000 new artists. 49,999 of them disappear.

Take the most expensive artists in Germany in 1960. Then you'll see that 2/3 of them today cost nothing. Fashions come and go. For example… Winfred Gaul from Düsseldorf. Then a Gaul painting cost as much as a Fontana painting. Today for a Fontana you would need at least 500 Gaul paintings, if even that would be enough. Or… Max Brüning from Düsseldorf. Once the chief restorer of the NRW collection came and wanted to exchange a Brüning for a Twombly. Today a Brüning painting is worth about 50-60,000 euros, a comparable Twombly painting starts at 6 million.

How many collectors still see the art as art and not money?

We don't have any investors. Here in Engadin, there are hidden houses and homes where there's incredible art hanging. For me the rule is: as much as a premium handbag costs, that counts as play money. And, of course, no one wants to lose money. My customers don't want any advice on investment, only about the seriousness of the artist. And whether it's good work or not.

If I am advising a collector who is just building up his collection, I encourage him to buy things that cause him difficulties. Only in that way will he become a good collector. Because things that are hard to digest bring another perspective.

One of Karsten Greve's favorite artists: Wols

For you, who is the most important post-war artist in Germany?

For me the most important German artist after 1940 – not after 1945, because the collapse of German and European culture dates from as early as 1939 – is Wols, that is Wolfgang Otto Schulze. There are just 90 paintings by him, 70 in museums, one here in my home. The ironic thing: as a German, he was interned in a camp at Avignon. Many German intellectuals were locked up by the French there - although they were refugees from Nazi Germany. When the German troops arrived, the camp guards fled - and the prisoners right after them, because they were afraid of the Germans too. Wols hid himself in Spain and France, among other places, and died very young in Paris due to horse meat poisoning! 

Have you ever been fooled by a forgery?

Happily, not yet. Of course you always have to be cautious. Provenances and examination results must be examined carefully, to exclude any unpleasant surprises.

Where do the forgeries come from?

There used to be lots of forgeries from Italy. Probably in future 50% of forgeries will come from China, because the traditional academic training there is excellent. There are thousands who are technically capable of painting a Rothko, for example. The Chinese guy who forged the Pollocks and de Koonings in Long Island is considered a hero outside of Shanghai!

The clever ones just painted the pictures, they didn't sign them. But this Beltracchi is a criminal. He forged the labels and everything. And you wonder how it's possible that the Max-Ernst expert got millions for offering opinions and brokering sales. 

Mr Rinus Vonhof from the Kröller Müller museum told us that the mafia secures its business with valuable art. Have you had similar experiences?

We have nothing to do with that. Certainly there are some would-be purchasers you need to ask whether you want to work with or not.

How do you actually recognise the value of a work?

I look for a painting and then think about who is crazy enough to share my enthusiasm. Sometimes you can't sell a picture because the collectors still don't recognise it. And if you're clever enough to hold on to it, then the profits come only later. Before that, not at all.

What artist is the new discovery for you?

For decades I've been asked: "Who are the new Picassos?" First of all, a young Irish woman occurs to me, Claire Morgan. She lives in London and has been trained in science, among other things. She makes animal preparations, objects, installations Very interesting, but also difficult. But we have always been able to sell her well. In her paper work you see a quality that is quite astounding. Secondly, I think of an artist like Pierrette Bloch, who does consistently abstract work and is one of the most famous post-war artists in France. She was born in 1928 but the German public, for example, has only just begun to find out about her.

They would otherwise be the centerpieces of any art collection,
but these works by CY Twombly hang in Karsten Greve's bedroom.

Dealer and collector Greve
in his private library.

Do you sometimes chase after for specific works?

Yes. There are works that I'm on the telephone every year for. For many paintings I've already been waiting 30 years for day X. Three years ago I purchased an object for which I had waited 25 years. The owner was an elderly woman, from whom we then received a very touching thank-you letter.

What painting was that then?

I've forgotten. (laughs) But I've still got it.
You know, a good painting always comes at the wrong time. If I say "Please not now, in summer". Then suddenly BANG! And something comes.

Are there paintings that you can't sell at all, because you feel such a strong affinity to them?

I've been through crises like that. Do you know what you sell in crises? Your favourites. In a crisis you have to go all out. That's a bitter experience.

Earlier I had the idea that my collectors were my inventory. Now many collectors have become greedy. Recently I had a discussion with a collector who had bought a work from me for 1.8 million marks. I could have resold the work for many times that, but that still wasn't enough for the collector.

If you visit me at a fair today, 99% of the works belong to me. We very rarely work on commission and so I always need more liquidity for purchases. Yes, I still buy.

You have galleries in Cologne, Paris and St. Moritz. Which of your galleries is your favourite?

We have a farm in southern Tuscany. There we do everything ourselves. I have a house, 4 x 4 metres on two floors. We built it up bit by bit. When a collector came and asked me: "And where are the paintings?", I just opened a window and said: "There". We are at Lake Bolsena, the largest crater lake in Europe, about 90 km north of Rome. The artists who come to visit like that.

Where do you see the global growth markets?

India and China. But they are complicated markets. We visit these countries regularly and also participate in art fairs there. 2.5 billion people with thousands of people interested in art.

Is an art collector ever satisfied?


One of the important early letter pictures
by Jannis Kounellis (untitled, 1960).
Three copies exist of this workday Edward Steichen.
The other two are in the Metropolitan and MOMA.
A picture in itself:
view of lake St. Moritz.

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