Can Berlin Paint Itself Back Into The Art World?

In a dilapidated building in former East Berlin, dozens of artists are busily sanding and hammering away years of decay, transforming old apartments into studios where they and other artists can work. Nearby, on the famed Unter den Linden, auctioneer Sotheby's has opened its new German headquarters in a gilded 18th century Prussian palace. Archrival Christie's recently chose the elegant Kurfurstendamm in the western sector for its new German office and exhibition space. Across the street, New York's Salander-O'Reilly Galleries Inc. is refurbishing a 19th century baroque palace for its first branch outside the U. S. It joins the dozens of German dealers that in the past 18 months have set up shop in the once-divided city.

Signs that Berlin is on the verge of an artistic renaissance abound--and they attest to the city's far bigger hopes. In the 1920s and 1930s, Berlin was home to 25 auctioneers and more than 250 major galleries. When Hitler came to power, allowing only sanitized Aryan art, Berlin's art trade moved to London. Its talent fled to New York. Now, the reunited 754-year-old city wants to regain its position as an art center rivaling Paris and London. The country's June 20 vote to restore Berlin as the seat of government will help. "No cost will be spared," says Marion Diwo, an art historian in Cologne, Germany's current art nexus. Says New York dealer Charles Cowles: "Berlin in 10 years will be more important than Paris."

Isolated for years, Berlin has a long way to go. Its surrounding environment is poor. "Why should I go to Berlin?" asks Karsten Greve, a major international art dealer who owns galleries in Cologne and Paris. "It has only 5% of the buyers that Cologne has, and I must pay four to five times the rent." Many Berliners who are affluent enough to spend on art are now directing their funds to rebuilding the former East Germany. Before Berlin regains appeal, industry must return along with wealthy individuals, major galleries, and artists.

Yet that day may not be too far off. Many Germans believe that prosperity in Berlin is just three to five years away. Germany ranks, after all, as Europe's richest nation. In 1991 alone, it's pumping $86 billion into eastern Germany. Dozens of domestic and foreign companies plan to invest there. Berlin's population is expected to jump from 3.5 million to 5 million by the mid-1990s. By 2001, the government plans to spend more than $2 billion to refurbish and expand the city's museums, which are already world class. "That's what gave New York a great reputation for art," explains Peter Ludwig, the wealthy German chocolate maker who, many say, is Europe's biggest collector of contemporary art.

Moreover, in recent years, Germany has produced many major artists. Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Gerhard Richter are among those who boast international reputations. "In Germany, there's an openness--all methods of expression are accepted," says Mohaamed Bennani, a French artist currently exhibiting in Berlin. By contrast, many art experts view the French contemporary art scene as staid. Berlin now has many elements that make for good art: It is cosmopolitan, diverse, even chaotic, with juxtaposed extremes of rich and poor.

The city's location, at the crossroads of East and West, also gives it an edge. Many believe that Berlin will prosper as an art center if it plays up its window on the East--where both Poland and the Soviet Union already have vibrant art communities. "Berlin's art scene will flower with a strong Central and East European orientation," Ludwig says.

With or without that direction, some pioneers of the international art trade are putting down roots. On May 30, Sotheby's staged its first Berlin auction, drawing a crowd that filled the main salesroom and four galleries served by closed-circuit television. The packed house competed for 105 lots of 20th century German art, and Sotheby's sold 72% of the works for a total of $4.3 million. That's below the presale estimate of $5 million to $6 million, but not bad, considering the depressed state of the market.

HIGHER PROFILE. Villa Grisebach, a five-year-old German auction house, has also chosen Berlin for its sales. On May 31 and June 1, it collected $9.8 million, vs. a $10 million presale estimate, for 61 19th and 20th century paintings. Then Villa Grisebach cultivated a crowd of international collectors and dealers with champagne and grilled shrimp at a posh lawn party.

Both Sotheby's and Villa Grisebach are planning to hold major sales in Berlin twice a year, with the next round set for November. Although Christie's has no current plans to hold an auction in Berlin, it has raised its profile there by advertising, dispatching staff for visits, and sending more exhibitions of its modern paintings, jewelry, silver, and furniture offerings to the city.

Christie's caution is a reminder that Berlin's ascendancy in the art world will take time. Yet plenty seem willing to risk a bet on the city's renaissance. After several trips to the city, as well as consideration of other locales, Salander-O'Reilly's Lawrence B. Salander is preparing optimistically for a Sept. 25 gallery opening. Says he: "It feels right."