Swiss Art Mimics Banks by Luring Foreign Millionaires

Zurich’s auction houses are attracting a growing number of international buyers for Swiss art, reflected in higher prices for artists including Ferdinand Hodler, Albert Anker and the Giacometti family.

Away from the glamor of Art Basel -- where Roman Abramovich and Leonardo DiCaprio browsed works by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol last week -- an unidentified European buyer snapped up a painting of an Alpine lake by Hodler for $8.4 million at auction at Sotheby’s in Zurich on June 4.

Applause broke out in the packed sales room after a telephone-bidding battle. The price was 78 percent more than the high estimate for the 1915 “Montana landscape with Becs de Bosson and Vallon de Rechy.” The sale of Swiss art raised $13.2 million, beating Sotheby’s 2012 total by more than half.

“I just love Hodler’s landscape paintings and Anker’s portraits,” Christoph Blocher, a billionaire collector and former Justice Minister who owns 280 works of Swiss art, said by telephone. “I didn’t think about them as an investment at first -- that only started when prices started to rise.”

Swiss art sales for Sotheby’s rose to a record 26.8 million francs ($29 million) in 2011, almost a fivefold increase from

2001. Sales for Christie’s more than doubled to $16.8 million in 2012 from $6.8 million in 2004. Global sales of impressionist and modern art at Christie’s increased to $997.7 million from $485.4 million over the same period.


“There is absolutely more demand for Swiss art,” said Urs Lanter, head of Sotheby’s Swiss art unit. “A lot of collectors see that Swiss art has a very high standard in comparison with international movements, and our most important artists, like Hodler, Cuno Amiet and the Giacometti family, were not only Swiss but European avant-gardists.”

The number of buyers from outside Switzerland rose to 25 percent last year at Sotheby’s, which holds biannual auctions in Zurich, from 9.7 percent in 2007, according to Lanter. Christie’s Zurich office said 20 percent to 25 percent of its sales are to foreign buyers.

Most international buyers come from central European countries such as Germany, where Sotheby’s exhibited pieces before its June 4 auction. Demand from U.S. collectors is also growing, particularly after a Hodler exhibition last fall at the Neue Galerie museum in New York, said Stefan Puttaert, head of Sotheby’s Zurich office.

Christie’s also exhibits masterpieces such as Hodler’s “Brienzer See” outside Switzerland to raise awareness before auctions, a move which is beginning to attract Asian buyers.

New Wealth

“Christie’s is growing globally and therefore looks at growth markets like India, Indonesia and Malaysia, where there’s a new sort of clientele, a new brand of wealth that has emerged,” said Bertold Mueller, managing director of Christie’s Zurich.

Galerie Michael Haas, based in Berlin, had three works by Hodler on sale at the four-day Art Basel fair, a sign the artist’s profile is growing internationally. The fair ended on June 16 and drew a record 70,000 visitors.

“I’m offering Hodler because I think he is a good artist,” founder Michael Haas said in a phone interview from Basel. “I don’t offer mainstream -- artists like Hodler represent individualism.”

Bonham’s appointed a representative in Geneva in early 2012, while Switzerland is Christie’s and Sotheby’s most important European source of consigners after London.

The country’s position is bolstered by the large art collections held by Swiss families, according to Hans-Peter Keller, head of the Swiss art department at Christie’s.

Treasure Chest

“This has made Switzerland into a big treasure chest,” Keller said. Millionaire households make up about 12 percent of the total in Switzerland, the second-highest proportion after Qatar, Boston Consulting Group said in a May 30 study.

Private collections started by Swiss industrialists in the 19th century have evolved into museums in smaller cities. Winterthur, for instance, has six art museums and is home to the collection of Swiss arts patron Oskar Reinhart.

“Swiss art is seen as fresh, as many works haven’t been seen in public for a long time because they were owned by Swiss private collectors,” said Hortensia von Roda, curator at Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, which is exhibiting works by Anker, the Swiss artist known for his portraits of villagers in the 19th century.

Ski trips to the Alps may also boost the appeal of Swiss art among foreigners as familiarity with the country’s landscape grows.

Holiday Attraction

“People love to come on holiday here,” said Puttaert at Sotheby’s. “Many Germans have a house in the Engadin or in Graubuenden, and many Brits and Belgians come to Verbier and the Valais.”

While foreign bidders have developed a taste for Anker and Hodler, they often prefer expensive lots, with smaller pieces sometimes left unsold, according to Blocher, who is also vice-president of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party.

“My perception at auctions is that international bidders are out for the big lots,” said Blocher, adding that an increasing number of Japanese buyers are taking an interest in Anker. “I love the symbolism in Anker’s portraits, because it shows that every person embodies the whole world.”

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Scott Reyburn on the art market, Ryan Sutton on New York dining, Jeremy Gerard on New York theater and Jeffrey Burke on books.

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