Collectors Nestle Among Essl Specials

London -- After months of speculation concerning the future of the privately owned Essl Museum collection of contemporary art in Austria, the contents will comprise a major sale to be held here next month by Christie's.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are perusing the art offerings of one of Europe's great private collections.

The group of 44 works, priced at up to £60 million and guaranteed by Christie's, will be the most valuable auction of a private collection of contemporary art ever staged in London.

The Essl Museum houses Austria’s largest private collection of post-war and contemporary art, numbering some 7,000 works.

It was formed by the hardware magnate Karlheinz Essl and his wife, Agnes, pictured here. The couple met in 1959 while she was working at the Virginia Zabriskie gallery in New York.

They began collecting in a serious way in the 1980s after Essl’s BauMax DIY store chain started expanding.

According to one source, the Essls, who are fervent Protestants, collected with an almost religious zeal and in bulk, meaning that, while they secured advantageous prices, the quality of the collection is varied.

Collecting Zeal

They began with Austrian art by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Viennese Actionists and the late Maria Lassnig, by whom they have 65 works.

They then broadened their range in the 1990s to embrace international artists from the rest of Europe and America, including Gerhard Richter, Paul McCarthy, Louise Bourgeois, Alighiero Boetti and Anish Kapoor.

In 1999, they opened their museum, designed by Heinz Tesar in Klosterneuburg, near Vienna.

As the Essls’ collection grew, so did their business empire.

Beginning with one store in 1976, BauMax had 158 operating in Austria and Eastern Europe by 2012, generating revenues of €1.5 billion (£1.2 billion).

But things went wrong. In that year, BauMax reported losses of €126 million,largely due to poor performances in Romania and Turkey, increasing to €189 million last year.

State Transfer

In March this year, Essl approached the Austrian government to transfer his collection to state ownership.

Estimated values ranged from €86 million at cost price to €250 million at current market prices, but the proposal was rejected.

A rumor then circulated that 4,900 works were to be sent to auction. “This was never on the cards,” says Jussi Pylkkanen, of Christie’s, who was already negotiating with Essl to sell a small group of the best works.

Meanwhile, the industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteiner agreed to provide collateral for a new company to purchase the rest of the collection, with Essl and his family retaining a 40 per cent share in the firm.

The backbone of the sale, to be held just before the Frieze art fair opens, are works by German artists led by a Gerhard Richter abstract, at £7 million to £10 million, followed by a realist Richter painting of clouds at £5 million to £7 million.

When Essl bought them in the 1990s for roughly one tenth of these prices, not only was the market sluggish, but the realist work was far more costly than the abstract, showing how demand has changed economically and aesthetically.

Modern Masters

Five paintings by Sigmar Polke, whose retrospective exhibition travels from New York to Tate Modern next month, constitute the best collection of Polkes ever seen at auction, says Francis Outred of Christie’s.

All bought at auction between 1995 and 2003, they are now expected to make 10 or 15 times those prices, with estimates ranging from £800,000 to £3.5 million, where a new record could be in sight.

The Essls are selling four out of a dozen works they own by Georg Baselitz. A massive wooden carving of the artist as a boy wearing a new hat is likely to set a record for a sculpture by the artist at £1.5 million.

Were it not for an extraordinary £11 million record price set for Martin Kippenberger in New York in May, works by him in the sale, estimated up to £3.5 million, would be record breakers too. A vivid 1986 portrait by Maria Lassnig carries the highest estimate yet for one of her works at £120,000 to £180,000.

Of more historical interest are works from the 1960s and 1970s by the Americans Morris Louis and Frank Stella, and by France’s most valuable living artist, Pierre Soulages – all bought cheaply in the 1990s and promising to see substantial returns.

While the sale will help to keep the museum open, it will inevitably diminish the strength of its holdings.

Today's Featured Art Video offers a tour of the Essl Museum in Vienna.