After the talk at the forum 20 four 7 – Collecting The New Contemporary collector Prof. Dr. Thomas Olbricht together with Julia Rust, the director of “me Collectors Room Berlin Stiftung Olbricht” sat down with Vita Zaman and Kristina Kulakova. They discussed his exciting journey in the art world, from feeling awkward to request prices at a gallery to creating a foundation.
Vita Zaman: How old were you when you first started collecting? What was your first artwork? Do you remember exactly what you bought?
Thomas Olbricht: It all started sixty years ago with some small pre-collections: toy cars, matchboxes, stamps, and later butterflies – real butterflies that I used to put in ethyl. I was 5 years old when it all began. But over the years I forgot all of this. When I started up this Wunderkammer in Berlin, the collection of butterflies reminded me of what I had done in my youth. I was like six, seven years old; I was as a child. Then as a student I started collecting Art Nouveau vases.
Kristina Kulakova: Do you still collect the same or similar objects?
Thomas Olbricht: The original cell of my collection was the compilation of small pieces of paper – “stamps”, and I still have this passion. It is something that I do at home, at my private desk, and I do it for hours. The stamps have something of a counterweight to visual arts. Today my stamp collection contains first edition stamps and curiosities. For example, one of the stamps in my collection, the first stamp of Saxony and also of Germany, is the so-called “Red Saxony Three”, and it dates back to 1849. Another stamp that I own is the most expensive contemporary stamp in Europe to date. This stamp, which appeared in 2001, shows Audrey Hepburn in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Audrey’s sons were asked for their permission regarding the release of the stamps, but they denied because they felt that Audrey’s beautiful eyes were covered by the shade of the hat and also because it seemed incorrect to show her with a cigarette holder on a stamp whose proceeds should benefit a child aid foundation. Due to this disagreement the post had to destroy the edition of 14 million stamps. Only two sheets, each with ten stamps, remained: one of them went to the Museum of Post and Telecommunication and the other one was auctioned in 2010. The sheet was then divided and the separate stamps were auctioned again. Today, I am the only owner of the Hepburn stamp from the upper right corner of the sheet.
Kristina Kulakova: How did it all begin?
Thomas Olbricht: I have been collecting fine art in all forms and media now for nearly thirty years. In the beginning I was afraid to visit a gallery and, of course, it took a while until I had the appropriate wallet to acquire initial works. I started collecting works of local artists, then post-45 German Art, and for the last twenty years also international art. There have been bundles of individual artists. In the last ten years I started to collect more thematically, mostly figurative paintings and objects. But there are also abstract paintings in my collection.
For about ten years my interest has also been directed toward rare craft objects from the Renaissance and Baroque period: some old master paintings, curiosities, cabinet pieces, pieces that I combine into a kind of cabinet of curiosities, a Wunderkammer.
Vita Zaman: You said that you first started collecting Art Nouveau vases when you were a student. How did you get the money?
Thomas Olbricht: I wasn’t the one buying art, my mother did. I forced her to do it. And she collected through me, but she didn’t know it at the time.
Vita Zaman: So Art Nouveau vases? What then?
Thomas Olbricht: I still collect Art Nouveau pieces. Especially Argy-Rousseau, who worked in Paris in the 1920s only until 1931. Then I started with visual arts.
Vita Zaman: Please describe the moment that made you go further, to the visual art segment.
Thomas Olbricht: I believe that there is not only one way to the art. There will always be a third party that will eventually awaken one’s passion for art – it can either be through the parents or school or art-loving friends – all these play an essential role in the discovery of art as a part of our life. I have been in contact with art since I was a child. This passion was instilled in me by various collectors from my own family and especially by my great uncle. I always remember these two images that I saw in real when I was a young student: Warhol paintings and Beuys objects – this forced me to start collecting.
Vita Zaman: Your great uncle already had an amazing collection that you could refer to. It wasn’t like you walked down the street and you saw a random print.
Thomas Olbricht: Yes, my uncle wrote a letter to all the galleries asking them to offer me full support.
Vita Zaman: So your great uncle was your first art advisor.
Kristina Kulakova: I read in one of the articles about you that you mostly collect art works by female artists. Is that true?
Thomas Olbricht: It’s just a coincidence. The explanation could be that there was a time when I collected erotic things and interestingly, most of those artists were female artists, much more than male artists, regarding this segment.
Kristina Kulakova: There are so many different pieces in your collection: paintings, videos, photos, sculptures, among others. Tell us more about the way you choose your artworks? Are the decisions you make based on your intuition?
Thomas Olbricht: When you start collecting as a young man, the first ten, fifteen years you have to have this passion, and maybe you do buy more intuitively, but over the years this won’t work any longer.
Vita Zaman: Have you ever sold something in an auction? Have you ever said I’ve made a mistake in buying this artwork? I don’t want to have this any longer?
Thomas Olbricht: Selling one of the pieces of my collection in an auction? What do you think?
Vita Zaman: No.
Thomas Olbricht: Well, you are wrong and I can tell you why. I am a dynamic collector. I am a collector of contemporary art and a contemporary art collector always has to be at the top of the Gratwanderung. There are a lot of artists at the moment who might be good for me, but as time goes by, some of them become depressed, for example, and if they are getting out of the line, why should I keep them?
Vita Zaman: Do you believe in this kind of dynamism?
Thomas Olbricht: Contemporary art is dynamic. If you buy art in a very passionate way, loads of art, your wallet must always be full. Maybe there is a value in the art pieces, but it’s not endless. So maybe you would want to continue collecting, or establish an art space like our “me Collectors Room” and organize an arts education program for children and for the public, if you want to do this you need to have money. So it could happen that there could be a piece in your collection that goes up in price absolutely crazy, why not sell it in order to generate new money? After ten years this is allowed in Germany, even with the tax authorities.
Vita, what do you think, in which direction will art history go? Will it be figurative, as Christopher Orr, or abstract?
Vita Zaman: I have no idea! But to answer your question, where the art world will go, I think that it will go to South America.
Thomas Olbricht: Of course, this is the only blank spot left, but the prices are already high there.
Vita Zaman: Yes, but it has modernism, right? And it is still different than Europe.
Thomas Olbricht: Now, the thing is, like everything worldwide, it is all about the global market; the art world went to China, to Asian countries, to the Islamic world, and to Turkey now. South America is coming up and maybe Cuba, for instance.
Vita Zaman: What do you think about China?
Thomas Olbricht: I went several times to China, met lots of artists. Some artists had Ferraris, Lamborghinis, others very old bicycles. I have a collection of Chinese art, but I was too late, already too late. Speaking in the art world language, I bought in the second row and the second row is still the second row.
Vita Zaman: The same happened with Hans Bellmer. A friend of mine, participating at the auctions, said: Vita, would you have three thousand pounds to lend me? I want to buy a beautiful Hans Bellmer that is coming up at Christie’s.
Thomas Olbricht: Photograph?
Vita Zaman: No, drawing!
Thomas Olbricht: It’s too expensive.
Vita Zaman: At that time, ten years ago, it was three thousand pounds. It is 70,000 to 80,000 euros now! Do you see?
Thomas Olbricht: If you would be an art investor in contemporary art in the future, you should go with Phillips. In the auction catalog you will always find within the first ten, fifteen numbers new names; you might find the right one.
Vita Zaman: What was the biggest mistake in not buying an artwork? Name one artist who you could have had, should have, but did not buy?
Thomas Olbricht: It really depends on with what kind of a focus you ask this question. Are we talking about investments? The biggest mistake I made was not buying a Damien Hirst – Skeleton cabinet in an art fair in Chicago, a long time ago. My friend asked me, should we buy it? And I didn’t. This was a mistake. It was really cheap.
Vita Zaman: And what’s the greatest victory? Have you ever bought something you were not sure of, or that you thought was marginal and then suddenly, for you personally, became amazing?
Thomas Olbricht: The biggest victory and at the same time biggest mistake was a painting by Gerhard Richter that I used to have in my gallery in former times. Then we had a Richter exhibition in Essen, in the middle of nowhere, so nobody bought anything. After that, a Belgian gallerist contacted us and said that there is a collector that is selling a Richter painting. It was a Skull painting, very small and I said that we should do it. The first mistake was not to buy it for my own collection but for the gallery. It all happened in the 1980s and the price was 300 German Marks, 150 000 Euro, so I said OK, it was in the end of February. We put it directly to Christie’s because we needed money for the gallery, and it was auctioned in May. I remember the exact scenery: Me sitting there, looking at the Skull painting of Gerhard Richter when it all begun; 500.000 Dollars! This was already more than we initially paid; 600,000, 700,000, 800,000, 900,000 Dollars…
Vita Zaman: Stop, stop! How were you feeling in those moments?
Thomas Olbricht: Great! Really great! One million dollars! One million one, one million two, one million three! It’s the winner! And the gallerist was in the auction too. That was fair, but the fact that we sold it was the biggest mistake. Today it might worth 4-5 million. There is no other Richter Skull painting on the market since then. This is one story, but I have lots of them. After all, nowadays, this is no longer my game, I am focused more on supporting cultural education for children, this is my game now.
Kristina Kulakova: So what exactly is your game now?
Thomas Olbricht: I would like to remain “myself”. I always want to discover new art and preserve the passion for collecting. The desire of collecting led over time to a rapid increase in objects. I also received many requests for loans from all over the world. This is positive feedback for me: The art I collect is required. With so much interest, it forced me to consolidate the idea of making my collection available to the public. I wanted to do this in a place where I could reach a lot of people. I believe, in Germany, this is possible only in Berlin because of its huge streams of tourists and art-lovers, especially in Berlin-Mitte. The result was me Collectors Room, which we built and opened in 2010. “me” doesn’t mean me – myself, it means “moving energies”, and this is a clear indication that the space is quite different than a public museum or a traditional art gallery. The me Collectors Room is a private space, a personal world of experience, which opens itself up to collectors, curators, and anyone who has the spirit of adventure, who wants to explore the world of art and its boundless possibilities.
Kristina Kulakova: Do you combine established and young art in the same show, when did you start showing such combinations?
Thomas Olbricht: I remember exactly how it happened, because I had a show in Folkwang Museum, in Essen, in 2007, before the old part of the museum was demolished. They built a new building so I had the whole ground for this exhibition, and there, in two rooms, I showed this mix of established and new art. I organized this exhibition two weeks before Axel Vervoordt and Biennale Venice and Palazzo Fortuny, so I would say I was the first to have this idea. At the moment one aspect of my current approach is to show art pieces in a kind of comparison. Let’s go on a ride. I will give you three examples.
Kristina Kulakova: And how did it work? Were the people excited?
Thomas Olbricht: Absolutely. We have exhibited works definitely not to show a Wunderkammer of Contemporary Art but to offer comparisons between the same scenes in old and new works.
Kristina Kulakova: How do you generate a public? How do you make the public interested in art?
Thomas Olbricht: I believe that the artworks should be arranged in an adventurous style. Everything has to be new, and every corner has to come to a new idea, to a new discovery. So we have to make a new kind of exhibitions, maybe also connected with other senses… We had a show with 21st century artworks, also featuring works by the artist couple Simmons and Burke from LA. They make artworks with images taken from the internet. You all know these figures and forms but when they are mixed together – 10000 signs, on a huge screen, with background noises, involving two senses at the same time – you recognize everything but you can’t connect it.
Kristina Kulakova: Going deep you mean? Why not?
Thomas Olbricht: This is the future, not going deep into things any longer. It’s stupid to do this.
Kristina Kulakova: How do you manage to keep the foundation interesting? People are not so concentrated anymore. How do you draw their attention?
Thomas Olbricht: You only find the way to the art in our foundation through a passage leading to our café because I consider that through several senses – by eating, drinking, and talking – can the experience be initiated. This completes my idea of a more equal world of sense.
Julia Rust: Once the children or the people are in the space where we show the art they become relaxed. This is the most important point of our whole workshop series. They come into our space, and they feel comfortable. This is why they’re open – with their eyes and all their senses – to the art that is surrounding them. And it’s not only contemporary art, we also have Baroque and Renaissance objects, so they find all the components that make them interested in a new world. This is our target; our greatest goal is to get those children, the younger the better, interested in a whole new field. The age of the children who participate in the workshops starts with four years. They are allowed to touch certain objects. That is important, too.
Over the past 30 years, Thomas Olbricht, born in 1948, chemist, doctor of medicine and endocrinologist, has put together one of the most extensive private collections in Europe. The collection encompasses works from the early 16th century all the way to the most recent contemporary art. The chief source of inspiration for his collecting was his great uncle, Karl Ströher, who maintained an interest in contemporary art even into his old age. The collection, which crosses genres and epochs, is shaped by the subjective choices of a passionate collector, whereby the desire to discover and understand human nature provides the central impetus. Existential themes such as love, life, Eros, transience and death form the key programmatic emphases of the Olbricht Collection. The collection hosts a number of great names, such as Thomas Schütte, Eric Fischl, Franz Gertsch, Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas and Gerhard Richter who consort with new discoveries, such as Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Simmons & Burke, Grayson Perry, Julie Heffernan, Elmgreen & Dragset, Kate MccGwire and many more. The diversity of the names points to the multiplicity of artistic media contained in the collection: painting, sculpture, photography, installation, and the new media. Historical retrospectives of timeless, existential themes are combined with views of current, contemporary material. In so doing, discoveries and surprises are consciously taken into account, the works are designed to transport the visitor into a realm of sheer astonishment and thus elicit new ways of looking at the world in the viewer. The Olbricht Collection and other international private art collections have found in me Collectors Room Berlin a permanent exhibition space in which to showcase their works ever since it opened in May 2010. In each show, the curators involved get to form their own personal view of the collections opened up to them. Besides these temporary exhibitions, predominantly of contemporary art, the Wunderkammer Olbricht, with its array of historical objects, is on permanent display.