“I have a disease,” says the ex-professor of endocrinology and former chairman of the German hair-products company Wella AG. “I collect.”
Thomas Olbricht, 63, has been suffering from this ailment for 30 years and the effects are now on show at the Maison Rouge, a private foundation in Paris’s Bastille district, where the interview takes place. “Memories of the Future” picks 150 works from his collection of more than 2,500 pieces of contemporary and historic art.
Death is the recurrent theme. A Damien Hirst canvas of a skull on an autopsy table shares a gallery with a 17th-century painting of the dead Christ in his tomb. Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait as a vamp stares out at a Chapman Brothers sculpture of skeletons hanging from a tree.
“It’s characteristic of me to think about what will happen in the future,” says the boyish father of five, dressed in a dark jacket and blue open-necked shirt. “As I get older, I just have this connection to the theme of death.”
Essen-based Olbricht joined his family business Wella, where he became chairman. In 2003, Procter & Gamble Co. acquired it for $6.9 billion to expand in beauty care. He sold shares worth 165.4 million euros (now $224 million), according to an SEC filing of March 31, 2003.
In May last year, Olbricht opened his own gallery in Berlin, called me Collectors Room. During the Paris exhibition, this space will show pieces from the collection of Antoine de Galbert, the founder of the Maison Rouge. With budget cuts squeezing public museums, private foundations such as these have become influential venues for showing contemporary art.
Art -- particularly contemporary -- has gained legitimacy as an asset class, says Olbricht.
“Art is a new focus after the stock market, gold and so on,” he says. “I give lectures to bankers on the subject.”
He dismisses fears about the art-market crash of 2008-9, when the price of contemporary works fell as much as 50 percent.
“Not all artists went down by that much,” he says. “Then they went back up faster than the normal financial markets.”
He points out that the pool of buyers for contemporary art has expanded massively since when he first started collecting.
“There are probably now 3,000 or 4,000 people who are prepared to give at least $2 million for art,” he says. “It’s spread from America to Europe to India, China, Turkey and Indonesia. There are so many newly rich families with no tradition of collecting. They have no idea about Old Masters, and so they buy contemporary.”
Despite his confidence in contemporary art, Olbricht says he’d like to collect in a more “secure” way. He’s now looking at modern art, the German Expressionists and more Old Masters.
Olbricht has a fascination with Renaissance-period ivory skulls and other memento mori objects, sparked by a visit to the TEFAF fair in Maastricht in 2007.
He continues to discover and buy living artists who have yet to reach the shopping lists of the world’s newer collectors. He has helped support the New York-based photographer Taryn Simon, whose work is on show at Tate Modern London, and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
What should someone with $50 million to spend be looking for?
“If you want to make an investment, look for contemporary Chinese abstracts because this market is just coming up and they’re cheap,” says Olbricht. “Then there’s Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. You won’t lose money on them.”
Richter’s 1965 photo-inspired dog portrait “Hundekopf (Lassie)” is in the Maison Rouge show. Olbricht says he doesn’t have many paintings by Richter, whose 1997 “Abstraktes Bild” sold for a record $20.8 million at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 9.
“I only have eight,” he says. “Oh yes, and then there’s the second level of American Pop artists. They are still underestimated. Buy good works by Larry Rivers.” And what else? “That’s enough,” says Olbricht with a laugh. “I’ve given away too many secrets.”
“The Olbricht Collection” runs through Jan. 15, 2012 at La Maison Rouge, 10 Boulevard de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Information: http://www.lamaisonrouge.org/spip.php?lang=en or +33-1-4001-0881.
The me Collectors Room, Auguststrasse 68, 10117 Berlin. Information: +49-3086-00-8510 or http://www.me-berlin.com/
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)