Rudolf Leopold Goes Shopping

Collectables of the future go on the block at the first ever Young Art Auction of Vienna's Dorotheum

On The Town | Isabella Vatter | October 2007

Artwork by Wolfgang Pavlik (Photo:

The sun was just setting on Schwarzenbergplatz; warm yellow light saturated the grand palaces surrounding the plaza as we entered  the Haus der Industrie, the neo-classical bow to commerce opened in 1911 by the Emperor Franz Joseph, tonight host to the first ever Young Art Auction of Vienna’s Dorotheum.

Inside, the grandeur of the architecture engulfed us, the walls and ceilings a profusion of classicist ornament and decorative stucco, the floor and stairs gleaming white and rose marble. Two tables had been set up where staff were handing out bidding numbers and catalogues to the visitors. When we asked for additional press material, we were ushered upstairs and introduced to the curator and producer of the event.

Alexander Teissig of Artware production consultants shook hands enthusiastically and led us off around the room to present the works up for auction and relating the history of the project, a first for the Dorotheum. The auction house, Artware and four other sponsors (Junge Industrie, Soravia Gruppe, One Two Sold and Industriellen Vereinigung) were hoping to build a new platform for artists in Austria.

"It’s all about young art, not necessarily young artists," he said, "but exciting, radical, young-looking art." Ninety percent of these artists are not yet represented by a gallery, he said. "But that could change after today," he adds with a wink.

He and his partner Raimund Deininger selected the works for the auction out of hundreds of submissions.

"It is like putting together a stock portfolio," he said. "You chose some very new, unknown artists, spice it up with one, two better known names, and try to design a mixture of art that appeals and has the prospect of being profitable."

So what did he expect of the evening? "Either it’s going to flop, or it’s going to be just as usual, or it will be ingenious."

We continued to browse the work on display over two rooms. A variety of styles and sizes were represented, ranging from miniature marble sculptures such as Thomas Naegerl’s "Vogerl", to figurative painting (Christina Fiorenza "Grottole"), contemporary, glossy photography (Rita Nowak "Beckmann Pyramide") to large-scale mixed media works such as Katharina Struber’s tryptich "24 Stunden Shibuja" from 2003.

Teissig returned once more, with an impish look on his face.

"Rudolf Leopold has just arrived!" Leopold, an elegant, grey-haired gentleman of 82, was the very famous collector and director of the Leopold Museum. We summoned our courage and approached him, asking what he thought about this evening’s auction.

"I think it’s wonderful, it is always important to support young artists,"he said. "It’s a nice project, and almost no institutions do this."

In general, though, Leopold was frustrated with the limited support for the young art market in Vienna.

"The department of education should do much more to support the artists," Leopold said. "But you know, politicians don’t know what art is. Mr. Gusenbauer is very nice to me, of course. But he described the entire Batliner exhibition [The Collection Batliner currently showing at the Albertina, Ed.] was ‘breathtaking.’ I think 70% of it is weak. And it is all supported by the city of Vienna.

"A lot of works today are imposed [on the market]. There is a lot of boasting with names, and such. But don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful pieces in the show -- such as the works of Popova."

Is he interested in any specific work or artist tonight?

"Yes, of course, I do have my eye on something," he winked, "but I won’t tell you what!"

And with that, he politely but decisively excused himself, and went off in search of the auctioneer. Together, they withdrew into a corner to discuss procedures, in a very secretive manner.

"We kindly ask you to take your seats," a clear female voice called over the murmuring. Glasses were set down, catalogues rustled and slowly the small crowd made its way inside.

It was a small crowd, no more than 40 people scattered around the room. The back row was completely filled, though, because from here you had the best view of the room, and of the other bidders.

Leopold, however, had placed himself in the second row on the aisle.

The auctioneer ascended to the podium: Andreas Wedenig, from the "old Dorotheum of young art." It was to establish a new base, a platform for young artists, and the proceeds would go 100% to the artists. This was impressive, and something that virtually never happens. He explained the procedures, illustrating the workings of an auction and we were off.

For the next 45 minutes, Wedening called up lot after lot, sliding quickly from one to the next, never allowing the pace to flag – which on several occasions also caused him to miss bids altogether. It was a surprisingly quiet style, too, nothing like the rapid fire patter of Christies or Sotheby’s.

Still, it was a good evening for the auctioneer. Though relatively small, the group of bidders was highly engaged, buying in the end just over 50% of the work.  The entire time, we were watching Leopold intensely, trying to see which work he had "had his eye on." It was almost impossible; he never seemed to move or react in any way. Only once were we able to detect a gesture and watched the auctioneers secretly return eye contact, as he won his bid.

When it was over, everyone met again in the lobby, where they were served champagne and orange juice, and discussed the outcome of the auction. Leopold was smiling happily.

Was he pleased with his painting?

"Yes, very, with all four of them!" He grinned, knowing he had fooled us.

So how did he do it? we asked the auctioneer. Wedening was reluctant to give the famous museum director away.

"Privacy and discretion are very important to him," he said. But we shouldn’t feel bad. "Almost no one is able to detect anything when Mr. Leopold bids." The only reason we had seen anything that time was that Wedening had made a mistake by pointing his hand in Leopold’s direction.

"Usually we just communicate through looks," Wedening said. "Sometimes he winks; at other times he moves his finger a tiny bit. He’s very clever. He knows that he is a luminary and people will want to bid on his choices and that would drive the prices up – which he of course doesn’t want!"

Alexander Teissig from Artware returned to the lobby and with a big smile, announced that the auction raised €54,000 for young art. The crowd gave an appreciative round of applause.

"Try to raise 54,000 at a gallery in one evening! This is great!" he gushed.

We found the artist whose realistic black and white painting of a female torso in water had been purchased by Leopold for €5,000 – making it the most expensive bid of the evening. The already grey, yet still young, Peter Kraus was beaming, but also a little surprised.

"I came to late and didn’t even know who had bought my work, nor for what amount," he said, still struck with wonder.

"Hearing that it was Leopold was fantastic. It does matter who buys your art, and since Leopold appreciates painting and has a great taste, it is of course a compliment!"

Moments later, we all moved into another room for a lavish buffet of appetisers, cold meats, Schnitzel and Tafelspitz, where artists, bidders and gallerists crowded together to exchange impressions, compliments and congratulations. An exciting evening with many surprises came to an end in the glow of good fellowship.

As the people slowly begin to leave, a shimmer of optimism for…. What, exactly? Perhaps it was a sense that there had been a shift that night, a change in the wind, bringing a better climate for young artists and young art, that lingered on the night air as footsteps echoed down the hall and out onto the street.

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    the vienna review October 2007