Hauswedell & Nolte was for many years an international institution in the art world, selling art, valuable books and autographs out of an old 1920s villa near the Alster river in downtown Hamburg. That made it all the more surprising when Ernst Nolte announced he would close the auction house. Mr. Nolte, who has been sole owner since 1978, told German weekly newspaper Die Zeit how tastes have changed, and what made him decide to close the doors for a final time.
Die Zeit: You were head of one of the most prestigious auction houses in the German-speaking region, together with your partner Gabriele Braun. Why did you decide to close down so suddenly?
Mr. Nolte: It's mainly to do with our age. Added up all together, we've worked a hundred years in this company — my partner 48 years and me 52 years — and that’s a good time to stop.
Wasn't there anyone interested in taking over the business?
Yes, several people. We had long negotiations and thought deeply about whether the house could continue in our sensibility. But with any one of the interested parties, the fundamental orientation would have changed completely, so we decided to say: ‘That's it. Done.’ The customers would rather keep Hauswedell & Nolte in their memories as it was.
Your auction house was mainly famous for selling expressionist art. Isn't anyone interested in it nowadays?
The view towards the fine arts is changing in general. That was another reason for us to stop. The collectors are more and more interested in the art of the contemporaries, which is very natural and normal. For example, our auction of an important collection with a good two dozen graphic self portraits by Max Beckmann in 2013 would have been a much bigger deal one or two decades ago. Tastes have changed significantly.
In what sense exactly?
The reputation of graphics in general has sunk, especially when they're black and white. Today, people are much more into color and larger formats. What people value now is art that makes an impression right away.
Does this change in taste also say something about the changing values among the wealthy – is modesty out of fashion?
The collectors who are shaping things today are completely different. They're much louder than collectors in the past, like Hamburg patron Klaus Hegewisch, for example, who passed away last year. He presented his graphics collection to the [art museum] Hamburg Kunsthalle and made generous gifts to the museum. The new generation of collectors is looking for art they can exhibit and which will really fill the space. They're looking for originals, for works which are unique rather than for graphic works. Those are clear shifts.
Did that bother you?
It's something you're not really allowed to say but the customers have changed dramatically. We no longer had the same kinds of discussions as in the past, there aren't many passionate collectors who are knowledgeable anymore. That was something we noticed day in, day out.
What made you become an auctioneer?
I first learned the antiquity trade in Stuttgart and in the 1960s, then I joined Ernst Hauswedell's business in Hamburg. There was a gap in the market in the early 1960s, when Roman Norbert Ketterer closed his gallery in Stuttgart, which at the time was Germany's most important auction house for modern art. We quickly moved in to close that gap and became the number one address for expressionist art in the late 1960s, '70s and '80s. We were able to sell some very important collections.
Your competitors in the art market must have been very interested in seeing your archives and your customer database.
Yes, we got a lot of calls about that, but we will not sell our customer database or our business correspondence. We are not oriented in such a mercantile way. We're in talks with a public archive. My wife and I ran this business essentially out of passion, not to make the most money possible. That also was why we decided not to sell the auction house. During our talks with possible buyers, there was too much of a focus on profit.
Does that apply to the art market in general?
The mercantile side plays too large a role today. When art is seen as pure investment, I start to feel uneasy.
Is a speculative interest in art just a phase?
Certainly. Not many people are behind the highest prices in New York and London, at the most just a few hundred art buyers. If they stop buying for some reason, the whole system of speculative buying would crash. Then, hopefully, we'd only see buyers who are really interested again.
What's your secret, how did you manage to the best items and the best prices?
It's still too early to tell. But to be honest, as an auctioneer you have to make sure you're well known among collectors including those abroad. We opened an office in New York in 1983. Collectors like Heinz Berggruen and curators from the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art came to the opening.
Is it satisfying to you when you see your auctioned works hanging in museums?
Of course. I rediscovered an early self-portrait by Beckmann in a museum in Los Angeles. There are pictures hanging in MoMA in New York which we also sold. A manuscript from Walter Benjamin's childhood is kept in the German literature archives in Marbach, which went through our hands. I just saw a female candle holder by Tilman Riemenschneider again in the Würth collection.
Riemenschneider's wood sculpture of a candle holder with a female figure was the first sale worth millions in an auction in post-war Germany. You also set records.
In 1985, it cost 1.3 million deutsche marks. It came from a seller in Hanover back then. We started negotiations way too late because of a heavy storm, but we were still able to auction it.
What do you collect yourself?
As an auctioneer, you can get into a certain piece for several weeks or months and then you move onto something else, that's the way this profession works. If you get too involved with the goods, that can be dangerous for an auctioneer. But there are things you don’t want to part with. I'm thinking of a street scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from the year 1913-14. And in terms of books, I also worked with the former Insel publishing house.
You aren't the only top level auctioneer stepping down. Is there a generational shift in the German market?
There's a real shift towards contemporary art. In terms of classic modern and older works of art, major works are rarely on offer any more. After all, museums now have most of the main works from those periods.
That's not something you have to worry about anymore. What will you do next?
My wife and I want to hike all the way through Germany towards Basel. We'll see if we manage.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]