INTERVIEW WITH DR. WOLFRAM VÖLCKER
"My manual works like a spotlight."
Art journalist Claudia Herstatt spoke to Dr. Wolfram Völcker.
Nowadays, there is a whole row of books about how to collect art. What is so special about your manual, “How Much does Art Cost”?
I describe my collection of texts as a kind of primer. It’s meant for the occasional buyer and the serious collector, as well as gallery operators and artists. Nothing like it has existed before now.
How is it set up?
The authors describe specific, comprehensible criteria that help the reader to better estimate the value of a work of art. There are many theories and testimonies, but until now, there has not been a book about why a work of art can be too cheap, too expensive, or just plain junk. The final chapter, by auctioneer Henrik Hanstein, of Kunsthaus Lempertz, sums up all of these aspects and names prices. For instance, why a good Picasso can be so much more expensive than a weak one.
Your own essay seems to argue for intuitive decisions, really not at all in accordance with Goethe’s famous quote, “One only sees what one knows.”
When judging art, I think that you have to rely on the fact that you can only see what you are capable of feeling, too. The work of art has to “speak” to you, but at the same time, all of the authors recommend that you always look and learn. Even if you sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees, it gets easier as time goes by, and you can see things more clearly.
Nevertheless, you’re now presenting a book that deals with legal aspects, statistics, provenance, and the position of works in art history. So it seems that nobody can really rely entirely on their instincts.
Of course not. But I think that, besides the cognitive reception of art, there is still a lot of room for the intuitive experience. It’s this combination that allows a person to understand the specific components of a work, and ultimately, to estimate its value. To do this, you have to know what an original is, what the assistant may have done, what is the provenance of a work, its condition, its position in the artist’s oeuvre, in art history. Those factors contribute considerably to determining the value of a work.
You are very familiar with drawings, and your gallery deals in them. When you are evaluating the quality of a drawing, what is going on in the back of your mind, apart from spontaneous feelings?
I deal with things in the same way that I recommend readers do, by testing a work for honesty, plausibility, independence, innovation, intensity, and evidence, and above all, by considering the effect of all of this on me. Generally, if I’m not sure about a work, I will hang the drawing in a quiet corner of the gallery, so that I can look at it again and again. If it fulfills all of the criteria and still emanates its magic, its sensation, then it’s won.
That sounds kind of complicated . . .
No, no. I’ll give you an example. It’s been my experience that the occasional buyer, who only wants to purchase a couple of drawings, can select the best drawings in the same way that an expert does. I’d maintain that is the case eight out of ten times, if you open up your eyes and take a break from everything you know and have learned.
Can your book prevent someone from falling in love with the wrong thing?
Not at all. But know-how makes you more careful. The “consumer” can expect very little help from art critics. This is because, in the interconnected world of art, public debates are controlled by those who can finance them. So the way that art is valued, the way its prices are set, is often mysterious and not just to laypersons.
How do you shed some light on this jungle?
My manual works like a spotlight. The authors are mostly people who are professionally involved with art: attorney Florian Merker, or the Managing Director of Christie’s Zurich, Dirk Boll; the provenance researcher at So-theby’s in Frankfurt, Isabel von Klitzing; Berlin restorer Daniela Baumbach. They illuminate all of the essential aspects that ultimately comprise the market value of a work of art.
It sounds as if there is a lot of work involved in determining the correct price for a work of art . . .
Actually, it’s a round-the-clock job. To make it easier, I’ve published this book. I think it will be very helpful.