Fears of Market Destabilization Cloud Proposed €250-Million Essl Collection Sale

Agnes and Karlheinz Essl Photo: Frank Garzarolli, © Sammlung Essl Privatstiftung, 2009

Agnes and Karlheinz Essl.
Photo: Frank Garzarolli, © Sammlung Essl Privatstiftung, 2009.

Should art be used to bolster business misadventures? That's one of the many questions before Austrian officials this week, as they mull the possibility of purchasing Karlheinz Essl's collection of Austrian and international contemporary greats such as Franz West, Antoni Tàpies, Günther Förg, and Gerhard Richter. According to the mega-collector, whose 15 year-old museum in Klosterneuburg outside of Vienna bears his name, a purchase of the collection would save 4,000 Austrian jobs at his beleaguered hardware store chain, Baumax. But, given a book value of €86 million ($118 million) as a whole or up to €250 million ($344 million) if pieced out, it's hard to see the collection being more than a stop-gap for the firm, which reported losses of €126 million in 2012 alone due to a miscalculated expansion into Eastern Europe and Turkey. Calls to keep culture and business separate, regardless of the collection's cultural worth, have erupted from within the very sectors of government meant to arrange the purchase. And some have gone so far as to question whether or not the Essl collection has any cultural value in the first place.

Most of the governmental officials set to join a roundtable discussion on Wednesday with Essl have stayed out of the media soup thus far. However, the governor of Lower Austria, where the Essl collection is located, Erwin Pröll, spoke out on Thursday. “Baumax's problems are issues to solve with economic, not cultural policy," he said. Simply put: He won't be responsible for taking the collection off Essl's hands. Other politicians were more measured in their responses, pointing to just how massive a line-item the acquisition would be, requiring nearly 20 percent of the country's €438 million ($604 million) annual budget for arts and culture if the collection was purchased at the book value of €86 million. Considering that the book value accounts for only the purchase price of the works, not appreciation over the years and decades since Essl acquired them, the percentage would likely be significantly higher. While he hasn't revealed what price he'd be willing to accept, Essl has hinted that €86 million isn't going to cut it.

The Austrian press has responded with a wide range of opinions. “Recently Austria has as many art experts as soccer coaches," Olga Kronsteiner jests. Leading Vienna-based newspaper Der Standard has published five op-eds in the last week alone, alongside their reported coverage of the potential sale. Principle among the concerns articulated in those pieces, before even looking at the numbers, is the message such a purchase would send. Andrea Schurian argued in a testily-titled piece “Museum ist kein Baumarkt" ("The Museum is Not a Hardware Store"), that a group of works based on the personal preferences of two collectors does not a national treasure make. Brigitte Groihofer shot back a worthy point that, despite efforts to remain art historically impartial, even institutional collections fall prey to the aesthetic preferences and expertise of their directors. Art is no science, after all—any suggestion of empirically oriented collecting should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

More significant is the argument made by Vienna's venerated artist-run exhibition space, Secession, and several others: To conflate the sale of a private collection with saving jobs is at least to “legitimate an unjustified claim," and amounts to a game of potentially dangerous populist politics. Karlheinz and Agnes Essl have claimed that 4,000 jobs would be saved by selling the collection, of which, they go on to point out, 160 belong to individuals with disabilities.

Taking a rather more cynical disposition, one wonders if the Essls would be so quick to try to sell their collection if the five-year probationary period of the collection's status within a trust had already come to a close. If those five years had elapsed, the collection would be safe from any bankruptcy claims against Baumax, or Karlheinz and Agnes Essl themselves. However, at just two years into the process, the pair risks the rather embarrassing prospect of having their prized paintings, sculptures, and drawings hastily parceled off at auction.

Such a mass-sale of the works would be detrimental to the artists within the collection as well. The Essl collection is particularly strong in works by Maria Lassnig, for example. They own 65 of her paintings, making theirs the largest collection of the much-celebrated artist's work. But despite the recent fanfare due to major shows at Hamburg's Deichtorhallen and now at MoMA PS1 in New York, such a supply shock would no doubt be detrimental to her market. It would more than double her all-time auction volume, only 47 Lassnig paintings having previously come up for sale, according to the artnet Price Database.

Those taking a slightly longer view have pointed not to these hallmark portions of the Essl collection, but to what's been described as the fairly middling quality of the majority of the works within it. Museums having to take in and store hoards of relatively low-quality art in order to gain major gifts is nothing new. (As Benjamin Genocchio previously reported, auction houses suffer from a similar plight, for that matter.) Generous estimates have pegged around half of Essl's collection of 7,000 works as museum-worthy. Allegedly, Essl has a propensity for a breadth-based approach, buying whole series of works by Jonathan Meese or Georg Baselitz, rather than focusing on the best that the artists have to offer and honing the collection's focus. It's what you might call the shotgun approach.

“The purchase [by the state] would only make sense when the state museums are also legally allowed to sell works over time," Im Kinsky auction house managing director Michael Kovacek told Die Presse. “Otherwise the state will buy 7,000 pictures, even if only 3,000 are interesting." He should know. Kovacek's predecessor, Otto Hans Ressler, was responsible for the €250 million valuation of Essl's works.

Much like the rest of Europe, deaccessioning works is vehemently looked down upon in Austria, if not strictly banned by the institutions' charters. A US museum might look favorably on a potential endowment boost gained by gradually selling off unimportant pieces from the collection. But the Austrian museums are more likely looking at precious free space in their storage facilities and asking themselves if they really want to fill it in with Essl's lesser purchases, never mind allocate their limited resources to maintaining his collection in perpetuity.