Among the first responses I received for my Art Markets column was an email from a woman in Boulder, Colo. It was a request for help. While attending an estate sale, she noticed an artwork that had been thrown into the dumpster. Recognizing it as an aquatint and not simply a poster or a cheaply knocked-off print, she received permission to take the piece that someone had deemed worthless. After scrutinizing the signature and conducting some astute online research, she identified the artist as a German from the early 20th century, Heinrich Vogeler.
The question was inevitable: What’s it worth?
Of all the gin joints in all the world, as the saying goes, she picked mine. I was more than slightly acquainted with the artist’s work she had retrieved. Several years earlier while traveling in northern Germany, I came upon Vogeler’s home, the Barkenhoff, in Worpswede, a tiny hamlet nestled in the countryside near Bremen, surrounded by moors and meadowlands which give the area a distinct beauty when coming in from the highway. The Barkenhoff was Vogeler’s contribution to the colony of artists and writers who gathered there in the early years of the 20th century. I knew Vogeler’s work was important but I also knew that outside of central Europe his name was unknown.
The life of Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942) is worthy of a great novel. Photographs from the turn of the 20th century reveal a fin-de-siecle dandy gazing sternly toward a future where an acute awareness of aesthetics would change the lives of the masses. Like British followers of William Morris, Vogeler believed that art should be inseparable from daily life and should be applied to the objects of everyday, not just to paintings enshrined in galleries. To that end Vogeler became a book illustrator and binder, played with typography, created brochures and calendars, and produced lines of wallpaper and bookplates. As a printmaker, he wanted people to own copies of finely crafted, well-designed artwork.
Like Morris, he designed a house according to his principles. Modest, elegantly proportioned and reflecting the history of the land where it sat, the Barkenhoff is nowadays a museum in the village where Vogeler worked in close quarters with artists such as Otto Modersohn and Paula Becker. Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke were among the writers who spent time in the village.
Vogeler began as a prolific exponent of Jugenstyl, as Art Nouveau was known in German-speaking Europe. His images drew from the curvaceous density of nature with overgrown gardens of twining vines and open flower petals, overshadowed by the spread wings of peacocks. World War I changed his attitude as well as his art. After the war he moved toward the angular geometry of Cubism when he wasn’t depicting workers in terms of social realism. He produced posters for the Communist Party and by 1923 moved to the Soviet Union, where he painted and drew realistic landscapes and portraits and executed mass-produced art in the modernist style showcasing industry and the march of “progress.” He died in a hospital in his adopted homeland in 1942, shortly after Germany invaded Russia.
The piece discovered in Boulder belonged to Vogeler’s early period. It depicted a steeply pitched half-timbered hut covered in thatch, in a woods of bare trees on a full moon night, with a downcast old woman trudging across the snow to her charmless cabin, shouldering a small fir tree. The aquatint’s title, “Weihnachten (Christmas),” seems pointedly ironic; the impoverished, archaic setting suggests the Brothers Grimm rather than the Nativity.
So, what’s it worth? It rather comes down to location. In Boulder, the artwork at hand is an old, well-executed print with a meaningless signature. Not readily saleable except to a collector of Art Nouveau prints who accepts obscure works now and again and isn’t deterred by price point. Auction sales for Vogeler are steady and brisk throughout Germany. Within the past five years his oils sold for as high as $63,000 and his prints, including the one found by our Boulder patron, have fetched up to $1,500. Only two auctions for a Vogeler were recorded in this same time period outside of Germany, one in Sweden and one in New York and both went unsold.
But we’re getting ahead of things a bit. First I needed to examine the artwork to determine details. The print was shipped from Boulder intact and undamaged. It was a Vogeler and appeared to have weathered its age well with no rips, tears or abrasions; just minor discoloration of the paper support, due to exposure to an acidic environment. It was found unframed with no indication that it had ever been mounted. My guess was it had been stored between cardboard for many years. The appraised value based on artist, title and condition was $1,200 to $1,500. The owner wanted to sell. Within the German marketplace the aquatint would be expected to sell within that range. Outside of Germany, or even Europe, expected results would be lower. I advised patience; this would take some time to find the best sale venue.
Villa Grisebach is an auction house based in Berlin, specializing in 19th through 21st century fine art. Their North American office is located in New York and represented by Dr. Philipp Gutbrod, whom we have worked with in the past. Upon contact, I was reassured to know that he was well familiar with Vogeler’s work and Grisebach routinely features his work although less frequently prints. Based on a possible return of $1,200 to $1,500, I was advised against sending it to Germany as the expense involved in shipping and handling could compromise the ultimate sale price. After relaying the advice to the client, we decided to place the print for sale locally to see what interest it could generate. A year or so later, a well-established client and I got to talking about early 20th century German art. Vogeler and Worpswede were mentioned as interests of his (how astute of him) and when I told him the story of our charming print from Boulder, and the auction results for that title, he made an offer of $900. The owner accepted and the buyer was thrilled to have a Vogeler in his modest collection of art from the Worpswede group. ?
Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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