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Expensive presents

Christoph Müller donates paintings worth millions to museums. He wants nothing in return but such gifts still cost museums serious money.

Considering he has given away hundreds of works of art worth millions of euros in recent years, Christoph Müller seems a pretty contented man. He loves the paintings and drawings he has bought over 40 years at auctions in New York, Berlin and Amsterdam, yet he gives them away. The kind of art he collects doesn’t provoke the excitement that contemporary works do. Müller likes lesser-known 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists, and more recently also 19th-century Danish ones. The pictures fill the walls of his spacious Berlin penthouse. And precisely because they mean so much to him, he has made a habit of handing over large collections of them to museums in Berlin, Cologne or Schwerin.

The Berlin Museum of Prints and Drawings alone, one of the most important European museums in its field, took hundreds of his drawings and prints by Dutch masters. “Those were important additions for our collection,” says Heinrich Schulze Altcappenberg, the former director. The State Museum of Schwerin on the Baltic coast now boasts one of Germany’s biggest collections of Dutch artists, thanks to a gift of 155 paintings from Müller estimated to be worth between €20m and €30m (£18m-£27m).

Müller’s most recent gift went to Greifswald in north-east Germany – the biggest collection of 19th and 20th-century Danish art ever received by a German museum. His Danish collection is so good that the German national gallery, the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, dedicated a special exhibition to it, a great honour. For Müller, it was a “highlight of my life as a collector”. When he buys more works by Danish artists, he consults the curator in Greifswald. Together they consider which pieces would round off Greifswald’s collection, making Müller a collector who bids at auctions for a public museum rather than for himself.

‘I am the collection’ – Christoph Müller with his artworks


Müller doesn’t waste money. He comes from Swabia in south-west Germany, home of the archetypal thrifty housewife famously praised by the chancellor, Angela Merkel. At auctions he sets himself limits. One of his reasons for collecting 19th-century Danish painters is that they are undervalued and there are fewer rival bids. When he gives the paintings away, he also attaches certain conditions. A major Berlin museum indicated that if Müller donated his Dutch works to them a large number would end up in storage. So he decided instead to give the works to the smaller but charming museum in Schwerin, which he rates as “one of the most beautiful German museums of the 19th century”. There, about half of his gift is on show in the permanent exhibition.

“I spend my money on paintings. I don’t need great luxury. What else should I spend it on?” asks Müller. One of his favourite quotes is from the former Berlin museum director Max Friedländer, who was dismissed by the Nazis in 1933: “Owning art is just about the only decent way good taste permits of displaying wealth.” There is a long tradition of collectors leaving their art treasures to museums, but someone like Müller who in return asks only for an exhibition and a catalogue is unusual. Influential collectors’ desires can range from renaming existing museum spaces to erecting whole new buildings. In 2009 Bavaria built a €48m museum in Munich to house the modernist and pop art collection of Udo Brandhorst and his late wife, Anette.

Some collectors want to influence the displays; or they only offer their works on loan, saving themselves storage costs and insurance, and leaving it to the museums to ensure the works can be displayed. It pays off if they ever decide to sell their treasures.

The conceptual artist Hans Haacke quotes Peter Ludwig, the influential collector who gave works to the city of Cologne, in his book Wirklich: Werke 1959-2006 (Really: Works). As early as the 1980s, Ludwig was refreshingly frank about how having art works displayed in museums increased their value. “That the collection is now worth 45 million Deutschmarks is mainly due to the fact that for years it has been displayed in such a prominent place as [Cologne’s] Wallraf Richartz Museum. I didn’t pay more than five million for all those pieces.”

‘To know my collection is to know me.’ – Christoph Müller

The power of collectors

However, these donations do not come without a price tag for the museums. Heinrich Schulze Altcappenberg estimates a gift such as Müller’s would cost about €100,000 for far from large exhibition and its catalogue. The works also have to be looked after to museum standards.

The art historian Wolfgang Ullrich points out that the conservation of new media art or installations can be complex. “After a few decades, the maintenance costs may be higher than the original purchase price,” he says. In the case of older works, researching provenance, such as former owners, can be complicated and expensive. After all, no museum wants to house looted or stolen art. He sees another problem, too: “Agreements are binding on the museums for a long time and oblige them to exhibit certain works. But nobody knows how interest or tastes will change.”

The boom in art prices in the 1990s, together with the shrinking of museums’ acquisitions budgets, meant power shifted to the collectors. Many museums rely on gifts and loans, and that has consequences. “Social ambitions and a speculative attitude are rife in the museum world,” Eduard Beaucamp, the art critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, lamented in 2001. “People like to use the public galleries as big shop windows and advertising space. A lot of exhibitions of contemporary artists are staged by dealers and collectors’ agents practically acting on their own.”

Being dependent on lenders can have an unwelcome impact, as the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt am Main discovered. In the 1990s the real estate entrepreneur Dieter Bock allocated Jean-Christophe Ammann, its founding director, DM3m Deutschmarks to buy works on long-term loan. Delighted by the generous gesture, Ammann began buying art, but in 2005 Bock suddenly decided to put 500 or so works that had been acquired up for auction, leaving the museum suddenly shorn of a major part of its collection. In an interview with the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel in 2005, Amman estimated the sale made €50m. The lender had made money not only from the museum’s reputation rubbing off on his collection but also from the director’s expertise and the discounts afforded by sellers to the museum.

Museum directors tend to clam up about this. Robert Fleck, former head of the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, offers an explanation: “The museums are scrambling to get attractive collections. They can’t afford to buy them themselves. And if a director cannot attract a top-notch collector as a partner for his museum, sooner or later the board of management will ask him why comparable museums are more successful.” Fleck can be candid, as he is now a professor at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. As he puts it: “The shift in the relationship between private and public collections is one of the most fundamental processes in the present-day art scene.”

Enhanced value

As director of the Deichtorhallen, Fleck had dealings with some big collectors aware of their power. In 2003, the renowned photographer FC Gundlach handed over his extensive collection to Hamburg on a 20-year loan. The same year he became the founding director of the House of Photography, which is part of the Deichtorhallen. Gundlach himself decided which of the works would be exhibited. “Housing the collection in a public museum conferred a certain nobility on it, which in turn pushed up prices,” says Fleck.

Sebastian Lux, manager of the FC Gundlach Foundation and a close colleague of the photographer in 2003, does not argue with that assessment. “The pictures have certainly risen in value since Gundlach gave them to the House of Photography. But as they are on long-term loan, he himself has not benefited at all financially.” When the agreement was signed Gundlach was 77, and he has no children. His goal was to secure the future of his collection for the long term. “It is not easy to hand over to a museum works so closely connected with the collector’s life as the Gundlach collection,” says Lux. “The agreement protects the collection against being exploited for purely speculative motives, namely first being displayed in a museum and then being expensively sold off. Gundlach has not withdrawn and sold any works from the objects on loan.”

Another major Hamburg collector, Harald Falckenberg, has been working closely with the Deichtorhallen since 2011. His collection of roughly 2,000 neo-Dadaistic avant-garde works, ranging from Martin Kippenberger to Jonathan Meese and Mike Kelley, demonstrate that private buyers can be bolder than the heads of public institutions. No museum director could afford to purchase so obsessively, extensively and uncompromisingly such large-scale installations and contemporary art with shock and punk appeal. Falckenberg’s collection (which is also displayed in the Phoenix halls, a former factory in the Harburg district of Hamburg) is available on loan to the Deichtorhallen until 2023. That is undoubtedly a great boon for the city, but it does not come entirely without cost. The city must pay to look after the collection and has to run the Phoenix halls, with their 6,000 sq metres of floor space.

Featuring contemporary art so prominently can boost the artists’ careers. So collectors’ loans are helping to write the history of art – a situation not so very different from the days of the Medicis’ patronage. The Bonn Museum of Modern Art and the Lenbachhaus in Munich are currently showing a double exhibition entitled Mentally Yellow (High Noon), illustrating how private individuals fill whole museums with their works. Doris Keller-Riemer and Hans-Gerd Riemer, the husband and wife team who assembled the KiCo collection of young contemporary art, have a good reputation among museum curators for how they remained anonymous for a long time and their lack of ostentation.

Under the terms of the loan, the museums undertake to show parts of the collection “to an appropriate extent”. Stephan Berg, director of the Bonn Museum of Modern Art, emphasises: “That means the decisions about the extent and respective length of presentation stay with the museums. The works are acquired by the foundation and then, as assets of the foundation, provide lasting enrichment for both museum collections.”  

Nonetheless, there is an effect on the market. Exhibitions in big-name museums attract attention and “that is a massive lift for the reputation of the artists, especially in contemporary art,” says Fleck. With the current double exhibition in Bonn and Munich, the simple fact that artists are represented in the KiCo collection will enhance their name and increase their market value.

Supply and demand

Fleck believes hundreds of such gifts, and loans of whole collections have been made to museums across Germany. But not all private individuals can dictate conditions: he estimates there are only about a dozen collections of the highest international standard in Germany that can. Below this top league, the collectors’ negotiating position is much weaker because supply by far exceeds demand. “In the 90s there were already plenty of people whose collections did not make it into museums,” says Ullrich, an expert on the subject. “Many tried, but most didn’t succeed. Museums are offered a tremendous number of works, especially bequests.”

Thomas Köhler, director of the Berlinische Galerie, says that he gets approached “every month, almost every week” by artists who want to leave their works to the gallery in their wills. The sheer “mass of works of art that museums are offered in vain as loans or gifts” would completely swamp the capacities of the museums, writes Walter Grasskamp, a retired professor of art history and a member of the board of the Bavarian Museums Foundation, in his latest book, The Art Museum: A Successful Failure.

This oversupply means there has been another shift in the balance of power between museums and collectors. The boom at the turn of the millennium has given way to a more sober interaction. “In the 90s there were a lot of collaborations that would not happen in the same way today,” says Ullrich. He takes the view that the debate about the suitability of privately collected art for public museums has only just begun. "There are now too many museums for contemporary art showing too much that is all too similar and which in the long run attracts too few visitors. A limit has been reached. Museums are already having to be more selective about accepting gifts of contemporary art.”

Art repays

In Christoph Müller’s apartment in Berlin, such issues seem very far away. The very fact that, unlike most collectors linked to museums, he collects Old Masters and not contemporary art means that he is not concerned with boosting reputations. And as there is little fluctuation in the prices for old masters, seeking to increase their value is not an issue.

Müller is 78 and has no children. He wants his collection to be properly looked after in the museums he has a partnership with. Forty years ago, when he started collecting and reading books on art history, he started going to the Netherlands on holiday, rather than to Tuscany. He liked the landscape because it looked “just like in the pictures”.

His feelings for art are inseparably linked to his partner of many years, Axel Manthey, who died 22 years ago. “But for him, I would not be such a visual person. He opened my eyes.” Manthey collected pop art, pieces by Roy Lichtenstein (“Dirt cheap, back then”) or paintings by Gerhard Richter. “They were not very expensive, perhaps 30,000-40,000 Deutschmarks. Axel spent all his money on pictures, and quite right, too,” says Müller.

Müller’s money came from the Schwäbisches Tagblatt, a local newspaper in Tübingen that he inherited from his father and ran for more than 30 years as editor-in-chief and publisher. When he sold the paper for a goodly sum 14 years ago and moved to Berlin, he found a new purpose in life. “I don't know what sort of person I would be today if I had not discovered art. Art repays you.”