Online Rebellion Dealer Tries to Liberate Art from the Elite

German art dealer Hans Neuendorf has been a pioneering maverick in his field since the 1950s. For the last 20 years, he has been trying to use the Internet to liberate the art trade from the cult of connoisseurship surrounding dealers, gallery owners and auction houses. It's been a rough road, but he refuses to be deterred.

Hans Neuendorf, wearing a white, open-collared shirt and dark suspenders, is standing at the window of his New York office, 23 floors above the construction site at Ground Zero. Neuendorf was there when everything collapsed, and he's there once again as everything is being rebuilt.

Neuendorf bites into a slice of quiche, his lunch. He is using white plastic utensils. He talks about that September day, 11 years ago.

He had come to the office early that day, in a building just a few minutes' walk from the Twin Towers. Everyone was told to clear the building, and people were shouting: "The towers are collapsing." But Neuendorf refused to leave his glass table. "No, the World Trade Center won't fall this far," he said.

It wasn't until the towers had collapsed, it became dark outside and the dust began coming in through the slanted windows that Neuendorf stood up -- to close the windows.

He ignored the announcement on the public-address system urging anyone left in the building to "get out now." Instead, he wrote in emails: "We haven't been affected."

At the time, he says today, he thought it would be safer on the 23rd floor than down below, where everyone was panicking. He doesn't say that it was hell, nor does he mention the poor people who were buried in the rubble. He also doesn't say that it was the day the world changed.

The way Neuendorf tells the story, it was just another day at the office, a day when he kept his cool.

No one but Neuendorf knows whether this is true, because no one else remained with him on the 23rd floor. But it's also safe to assume that Neuendorf wants to be perceived as something of a Bruce Willis of the art world, cool, fearless, perceptive and courageous -- in other words, as someone who merely gets up to close the windows when the world around him is falling apart.

Bringing Art Auctions Online

Neuendorf, 74, has been involved in the modern art business since the 1950s. He has had a lot of experiences and has made a lot of money, and he could easily have retired to his modern villa on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, which was designed by an architect who has worked for Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. But he isn't interested in retiring. Instead, he sits in a New York office tower and has only one goal: to thoroughly reform the art trade that has made him rich.

"If I want to sell a car, I look in the Blue Book to see how much it's worth," says Neuendorf, referring to a popular US guide to used-car values, "and I'm rid of the thing in a week."

If Neuendorf has his way, paintings by the likes of Chagall, Picasso and Lichtenstein will be marketed like used cars, each provided with a list price that everyone can see and sold online to the highest bidder. His company, Artnet, has been in business for 20 years. "When it comes to art, Artnet has the most comprehensive global database," Neuendorf says, "and now it will also become the world's biggest auction house." He envisions it being larger and more powerful that Sotheby's and Christie's combined. Selling through Artnet is faster, more transparent and, most of all, more affordable, Neuendorf says.

Last year, Artnet hosted its first auction in which a Warhol work was sold. It was a green painting with blue flowers. The minimum bid was $800,000 (€640,000). An image of the painting was posted online for six days. The bids started going up near the end of the auction. When Neuendorf went to lunch, the highest bid was still $800,000. By the time he had eaten his sandwich, the Warhol had been sold to the highest bidder -- for $1.3 million.

The Currency of the Future

Neuendorf rests his foot against the glass edge of his desk. He gazes out the window, across the western edge of Manhattan and the gray water of the Hudson River, to an oversized clock in New Jersey. The hands of the clock have stopped.

He believes that his time has come, and the numbers back him up. When Lehman Brothers went out of business and, next to Sept. 11, the biggest disaster of the new millennium had come to pass, things were not looking good for Neuendorf. The financial crisis all but destroyed the art market, and prices continued plummeting for two years. But things started picking up again in 2010 -- and, suddenly, the sky's the limit. Last year alone, art sales worldwide amounted to €46 billion.

"A worrisome, idiotically high price," says Neuendorf, referring to the latest record in the art market, which was reached on May 2, when Edvard Munch's "The Scream" was sold at auction at Sotheby's in New York.

The hammer fell at $119.9 million. The buyer remained anonymous, but Neuendorf says that the only people capable of playing at this level are those "who have collected their money but haven't earned it: oil sheiks from Dubai, Russian oligarchs and hedge fund managers." For the rich, art appears to be what gold and real estate are for the not-quite-so-rich: a coveted form of investment, and a currency of the future.

Making a Killing in Art

Neuendorf is on the phone talking about Georg Baselitz. The well-known German artist is so wealthy that he lives on an estate on Bavaria's Ammersee lake that was designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, a firm that usually builds things like the Olympic Stadium in Beijing.

"A count from Germany recently sold his Baselitz collection at Sotheby's in London," Neuendorf says. The count had apparently owned so many Baselitz works that he had lost track of where the paintings had originally come from. In his confusion, says Neuendorf, the count had called him and asked: Didn't you sell me eight of them once?

"Damn, that count had certainly stashed away quite a collection," says Neuendorf, clearly impressed.

His motions for his assistant and asks her to print out the results of the Baselitz auction. A few moments later, he is reading from a list of Baselitz's "Hero" paintings that were sold at auction. "Spekulatius" went for $5,195,000, "Big Night" for $3,845,000, "The Tree" for $2,855,000 and "Three Hearts" for $2,046,000.

Neuendorf smiles with both envy and admiration. "The count really made a killing," he says. But he deserved it, Neuendorf adds, because, after all, the count had held on to the paintings for 30 years.

Destroying the Aura of Exclusivity

The art market is not an open affair. It thrives on back rooms, knowing the right people and the well-placed, targeted indiscretion. Transparency or the sort of open indiscretion Neuendorf engages in is terrifying to the art world. It's considered cheap, plebeian and lowbrow.

Gallery owners or dealers usually control the prices, and they prefer to quote prices to potential buyers in private, often speaking in a whisper. The goal is to give the individual buyer the feeling of being elevated into a caste of select connoisseurship.

Neuendorf's Artnet destroys this aura of exclusivity. On his website, the only things that count are the work and the price. To the great annoyance of the entire industry, selling art in this way is essentially like shopping in a supermarket. What's more, potential buyers are increasingly showing up in backrooms with printouts from Neuendorf's Artnet that show an artist's worldwide prices, thereby polluting the cultivated atmosphere.

Sales and auction results for more than 4,000 artists are available on Artnet, giving the amateur collector the chance to become a competent player in the business. The site gives the buyer more power while simultaneously taking it away from the dealer -- which is exactly why so many gallery owners view Neuendorf as the enemy.


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