Europe’s 10 Most Important Auction Houses

  • May 18, 2014
  • Uncategorized

Alexander Forbes

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sans titre (Self portrait with tie) (1985)
Photo: courtesy Tajan

To the vast majority of the art world, say the word “auction” and two names come to mind: Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Increasingly, Phillips is proving a strong third. And Bonhams continues to square off a quartet of auction power quite unshakable in its might. But, on the European Continent, the auction landscape is quite different. Top lots may still get shipped to London or New York in order to achieve top prices. But Europe’s much more widely spread collector capitals and deep reserves of older art demand a different model. The houses are smaller. And, by and large, their balance sheets are predicated mainly on the Impressionist and Modern market despite the sector’s overall downward turn in recent years.

But some trends do hold true here too: post-war and contemporary art is on a rise in importance across nearly all of Europe’s top auction houses. Several houses have brought in new hires from the primary market or initiated arts festivals with contemporary art institutions in order to gin up collector interest and knowledge. Prices are lower than in London or New York. But for the savvy collector, that’s actually a positive–sales rooms in Europe typically lack bravado-heavy displays that can push prices above their natural bounds. Here, ten houses where those savvy collectors are doing their bidding:


After purchasing Tajan from LVMH in 2003, American art collector and business woman Rodica Seward has radically changed the house’s tack, repositioning it from a focus on Old Masters and decorative arts to her own area of expertise (and the locus of her personal taste) modern and contemporary art and design. The house now holds at least one sale a week in its Parisian headquarters just behind the opera on the Rue des Mathurins as well as a storied annual sale in Monte Carlo. Seward’s move to place Tajan within the ever-growing market for postwar and Asian art has paid off. Recent successes include Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Sans titre (Self portrait with tie) (1985; est. €800,000-1,200,000), which sold for €1,341,668 ($1,804,529) and Chu Ten-Chun’s Composition n°290 (1968) which made nearly triple its €450,000 upper estimate, selling for €1,339,944 ($1,802,211) last November. Last April’s auctions of Art Brut and 19th-century art also saw major interest with Augustin Lesage’s Composition symbolique – L’énigme des siècles (1929; est. €50,000-80,000) selling for €373,800 ($519,238) and Antonio Mancini’s Un jeune violoniste (1878; est. €15,000-20,000) bucking all expectations, to sell for €361,162 ($471,490).

Aristide Maillol, La rivière (1938-1943)
Photo: courtesy Artcurial


Located in the Hôtel Marcel Dassault on Paris’s Champs-Élysées, Artcurial is a relative newcomer to the often old school auction world. Yet, since being founded in 2001, it has been a dominant force in the French auction scene. The house grew out of La galerie d’art Artcurial, which was founded in 1970 by then-head of France’s L’Oréal, François Dalle. In 2002, the Dassault family, along with Nicolas Orlowski and Francis Briest, purchased the gallery and turned it into one of the country’s highest-earning auction establishments. In 2012 the house saw a gross turnover of €144,200,000 (approximately $200 million). Top lots in the past year have included: Aristide Maillol’s lead sculpture La rivière (1938–1943), which rocketed past a €3 million high estimate last December to sell for €6,177,266 ($8,370,279)*, including buyer’s premium. Two works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, La danse de noces en plein air (1624; est. €800,000-1,200,000) and Le paiement de la dime (1615; est. €300,000-400,000) went for €1,661,400 ($2,290,322) and €1,660,362 ($2,233,771), respectively. And Yves Klein’s F 131, l’Eau, le feu et la marque du corps (1961) doubled its upper estimate of €300,000 to sell for €621,394.


Richard Serra, Curve I (1981)
Photo: courtesy Cornette de Saint Cyr Brussels

Cornette de Saint-Cyr

Founded in 1973 by major proponent of French contemporary art Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr and his two sons Bertrand and Arnaud, the bijou Paris auction house expanded to Brussels in 2012 and excels across categories, from ancient art and Old Masters to contemporary art and even fashion. In Belgium the house has seen increasing recent success with postwar art: Richard Serra’s paint-stick work Curve I (1981; est. €80,000-120,000) sold in April 2013 for €110,000 and Simon Hantaï’s Etude (1970; est. €140,000-180,000) sold last December for €215,000 ($292,238). Back in Paris, the past year’s results have been led by Pierre Soulages’ Peinture (1949; est. €500,000-700,000), which sold in October for €608,165 ($839,427), César’s La pacholette (1966-1990; est. €200,000-300,000), purchased for €248,797, and an untitled work by Martin Ramirez from 1950 (est. €180,000-220,000), which sold for €211,621.

Lyonel Feininger, Stilleben (1912)
Photo: courtesy Lempertz


Germany’s longest privately held auction house, Lempertz was founded in 1845 by Heinrich Lempertz and purchased 30 years later by Peter Hanstein whose descendant Henrik Hanstein still runs the house today from its Cologne headquarters. Lempertz recently opened a new outpost in Brussels with Europe’s first-ever sale of a space capsule. However, their strong suits are traditionally Old Masters, classical modern, and, increasingly, postwar and contemporary art. Highlights from the last year include a Lyonel Feininger still life from 1912 (est. €900,000-1,200,000, which sold for €1,220,000 ($1,653,564), Max Pechstein’s Der Mühlengraben (1912; est. €700,000-900,000), which sold for €854,000 ($1,157,495), and Günther Uecker’s Feld 83/84 (1983-1984), which far outpaced its upper estimate of €250,000, going for €793,000 ($1,024,547).

Max Pechstein, Schrei am Meer (1919)
Photo: courtesy Ketterer Kunst

Ketterer Kunst

Setting up their eponymous house in Munich just after the World War Two, Roman Norbert Ketter and his brother, Wolfgang, made their names in the secondary market selling works that had years before been condemned as so-called degenerate art. Celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, Ketterer keeps a keen focus these masters of the classical modern, having shown new strength in the postwar segment in recent years as well. Highlights from the last year include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s two-sided canvas Zwei mit Katzen spielende Mädchen / Frauen- und Männerkopf (1907), which sold for €1,812,500 on an estimate of €600,000-800,000; Max Pechstein’s Schrei am Meer (1919), which had an estimate of €800,000-1,200,000) and was purchased last December for €1,562,500; and a Karl Schmidt-Rottluff painting, Anlegeplatz am Fluss (Maasholm an der Schlei) (1956), which far exceeded the upper limit of its presale estimate of €180,000, selling for €675,000 ($892,267).

Max Liebermann, Der Nutzgarten in Wannsee nach Westen (1922)
Photo: courtesy Villa Grisebach

Villa Grisebach

Since it was founded by five art dealers—Bernd Schlutz, Hans Pels-Leusden, Wilfried Utermann, Raimund Thomas, and Michael Neumann—in 1986, Villa Grisebach has been a bright spot on Berlin’s otherwise fairly limited secondary market scene. In recent years, with the hiring of journalist and author Florian Illies and this week’s announcement of bringing on board art dealer and former Gallery Weekend Berlin VIP director Michael Neff, the house has been on a mission to update its image and its offer. Neff especially is set to put the house on a more postwar and contemporary art track, opening a large new space on Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse dedicated to the periods. Like most German houses, however, their biggest business rests in classical modern art. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Watt bei Ebbe (1912) brought €2,720,000 on a €1-1.5 million estimate last November. Highlights from last May’s auction included Emil Nolde’s Landschaft (Mit Regenwolke) (1925; est. €1-1.5 million), which sold for €1,220,000 ($1,591,235) and Max Liebermann’s Der Nutzgarten in Wannsee nach Westen (1922), which brought €951,600 ($1,241,163) on a €500,000-700,000 estimate.


Founded in 1958, the still family-owned and family-run house has undergone massive modernizations since its latest scion took the helm in 1998. Now with two locations in Zurich and one in Geneva, Koller has become one of Europe’s most important auction houses for Old Masters, 19th century, Impressionist, and modern art. Its clientele has become increasingly international as well, the house selling 80 percent of lots to buyers outside Switzerland. Highlights from the last year include a CHF 7,495,000 ($8,011,758) result for Albert Ankler’s Turnstunde in Ins (1879; estimated at CHF 3,500,000-5,000,000), CHF 6,575,000 for Vincent van Gogh’s Pont de Clichy (1887; est. CHF 5-7 million), and achieving a new world record for Jan Gossaert’s Maria mit Kind (circa 1530; estimated at CHF 1.8-2.2 million), which sold for CHF 2,377,500 ($2,682,802).


Continental Europe’s largest auction house, with 600 sales annually, Dorotheum also has one of its most charmed histories. Upon founding the house in 1707, Emperor Joseph I took what was more or less a pawn shop for subjects of the Habsburg realm, and turned it into a fully fledged auction establishment. In 1918 when the Habsburg Empire fell, the house took the name of the palace in which it was located, one which still bears their crest in its main salesroom. Nearly a century later, a group of Viennese businessmen purchased the Dorotheum and have since utterly revamped the company. While Viennese collectors typically favor Old Masters and 19th-century art, the Dorotheum’s new leadership have made great strides in expanding their offer in the postwar and contemporary art sector. To see proof that the approach is working, one needn’t look further than last year’s top lot, Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attesa (68 T 77) (1968) which sold for €1,071,389 ($1,453,322) over a €400,000-600,000 presale estimate in November. Other recent highlights include: Jusepe de Ribera’s Die Verhöhnung Christi (est. €300,00-500,000), which sold in April 2013 for €711,300 ($928,347) and Mario Schifano’s Incidente (diptych) (1963), which made €446,800, in the same sale as the Fontana, over a €100,000-150,000 presale estimate.

Pablo Picasso, Paysage, Méditerranéen (1963)
Photo: courtesy Bukowskis


Though founded in 1870 by Henryk Bukowski, the house has long been Scandinavia’s most prominent secondary market force for fine art and antiques. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Bukowskis took on its modern form and indeed its spot at the top of Scandinavia’s secondary market. The house continues to grow, and a new highpoint in the postwar sector is expected to be reached tonight with the sale of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper (1986), (est. €6.7-9 million). Nonetheless, Bukowskis retains its signature quirk of mixing art and design objects in their four major annual sales, however, only separating by period. Leading results from the last year have included: Pablo Picasso’s Paysage, Méditerranéen (1963; est. SEK 5-7 million), which sold for SEK 16,093,439 ($2,458,439) and an Anders Zorn watercolor—Bukowskis had the sole right to his etchings in the 1920s—Dalaröklippor II (I skärgården) (Cliffs of Dalarö II / In the Archipelago), which bucked a upper estimate of SEK 10 million to sell for SEK 13,687,500 ($2,104,021).

Alfred Sisley, Le Parc (1878)
Photo: courtesy Stockholms Auktionsverk

Stockholms Auktionsverk

The world’s oldest auction house still in operation, Stockholms Auktionsverk was founded in 1647 by the city’s then-governor, Baron Claes Rålamb. Scandinavia’s largest house by volume, each year Stockholms Auktionsverk holds 75 sales totaling than 60,000 lots per year. The house sports an annual gross turnover of around 500,000,000 SEK ($ 75,347,500). Recent top lots show strong success across numerous sectors, with particular depth in modernist painting. Alfred Sisley’s Le Parc (1878) brought SEK 14.1 million ($2,164,502) over an estimate of SEK 10-12 million last December. Ivan Agueli’s Stockholmsutsikt (1892) doubled its upper estimate of SEK 2.5 million for a SEK 5.4 million ($828,958) result, and David Shterenberg’s Still Live (circa 1920) tripled its low estimate of SEK 1 million to sell for SEK 3.1 million ($475,883) in the same sale.