Going Once...

A pawnshop-turned-auction house, the Dorotheum is a cache of antiques and glamour for art connoisseurs on the prowl

On The Town | Caitlin Spencer | October 2008

A visitor tours the halls of the Dorotheum (Photo: www.daylife.com)

Walking through the inner city in search of an ATM, I stumbled across the Dorotheum, Vienna’s famed auction house, tucked away behind the cafes and curving corners of the 1st District. Could this be Vienna’s best-kept secret south of the Graben?

I tried the door. Locked. It was out of hours. I peered in between the bars of the ornamental ironwork and through the glass doors and could just make out something sparkling in a display case perched on an angled pillar….  Was it crystal? Jewelry? You might as well have been waving a red cape in front of a bull!

Back home, I pulled out the old trusty guidebook and gave the place a closer look.

The Dorotheum started out in 1707 as a Pawn & Query Bureau, on a back street in Vienna’s Old City center. Eighty years later, it moved into the former Dorothea Convent – whence its name – whose facilities were adapted to the Pawn & Query Bureau’s growing retail and auction business.

By the end of the 19th century, auctions were being held in 13 separate rooms, and the Emperor Franz Joseph commissioned the rebuilding of a grand Palais on the grounds of the old monastery hiring noted architect Emil von Förster, who had worked on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, to draw up plans for a building that was "to be magnificent without being ostentatious."

A few days later, I was back. Walking through the heavy doors, my eyes focused on the soft red carpet below my feet, lining the glass-smooth floors. The formal opening of the Palais in 1901 was hosted by the Emperor himself, who slid gracefully among his guests along the glistening marble.  I slowly raised my head, channeling Empress "Sissi", letting the scent of fresh lilies fill up my lungs. My eyes froze as they caught the sparkling jewels that filled the cases along the foyer. I extend my hand towards them, knowing that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and smack!  The glass encasement, not to mention the glare from the nearby security guard, brought me back to reality – Behave, I reminded myself! This is an auction house, not a theater!

A nearby employee cought my embarrassment and approached.

"Beautiful aren’t they?" she said smiling. Blushing slightly, I stumbled, "Oh…yes…very beautiful…". Finding it more difficult than expected to tear my eyes away, she took my hesitation as curiosity.

Since 1978, she told me, retail sales have become a second major business division for the Dorotheum. The galleries now offer a wide selection of art, decorative objects, and antiques for sale, all entirely independent of the auction schedule.

Do I prefer classic elegance or more modern designs? What could I say? Both, I’m afraid. So she took me on a walk through of some of the collections, of gold, pearls and a rich range of precious stones, as well as silver jewelry, and watches of all major makers. Here too, the Dorotheum moves with the times, and I am surprised at the wide assortment of sporty pieces as well as the classic, or simply elegant.

The Dorotheum also houses Austria’s most modern, state-of-the-art jewelry lab and the only one in the country equipped with a "Diamond Sure" used to distinguish natural and artificial diamonds. Aside from examining the jewels destined for auction, the jewelry lab also provided certificates of authenticity and quality and offers valuations at every level.

It’s an impressive story: This once local institution has transformed itself into a modern enterprise with a staff of 470 and a presence in Milan, Brussels, Munich, Düsseldorf, and Prague, making the Dorotheum the largest auction house in German-speaking Europe. Its 600 annual auctions in over 40 categories are supervised by a total of 70 experts and specialists who readily provide advice and assistance.

Time for a break. As all things Austrian go, somewhere there must be Kaffee mit Schlag and a slice of Strudel. No problem: Second floor and take a right at the top of the stairs for coffee, cigarettes, and Sachertorte in a traditional coffeehouse next to the Dorotheum Gallery. Crimson curtains hang heavy on the red-carpeted floor of the cafe, and I noticed a woman staining her coffee cup with the same shade of red lipstick as the room around her. Red seemed to be a continuing theme in Vienna – red Strassenbahnen roll along the city’s narrow streets like delicate, embroidered seams woven into a culture of Mozart and Lederhosen. Waiting for my mélange, I remembered – of course, it’s the flag: a wide band of white  sandwiched between two dominating stripes of red.

Back on the floor, I was a little puzzled by the understated decor, which, while of classic proportions, seems much simpler than other nearby palaces of the same era. My guidebook explained that the building had been heavily damaged during World War II, and, like the Staatsoper, was rebuilt more modestly. Further changes came at the end of the 1980s, when the foyer and interior were redesigned by the Viennese architect Luigi Blau. And this past year, further renovations were carried out in honor of the Dorotheum’s 300th birthday. A traditional Austrian enterprise, still in Austrian hands even after privatization, the Dorotheum continues a part of Vienna’s character.

On my way out, my million new, sparkling best friends seemed to call out my name through the glass casement where they will remain until their action begins next month. With the Dorotheum now on my radar, perhaps I would soon be on their client list as one American jewelry lover who just can’t get enough of Austrian culture.

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