German artist Gerhard Richter calls early works ′junk′ | Arts | DW | 16.12.2019
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German artist Gerhard Richter calls early works 'junk'

An anonymous seller is offering a bundle of alleged early drawings by Gerhard Richter for millions of euros. The star painter is angered and has finally spoken out, saying half the booty should be burned.

Two A4 folders filled with around 500 random drawings and sketches allegedly contain a potential art treasure. The cover reads "Gerhard Richter Early Works," and the owner claims the bundle consists of drawings created by the world-famous painter during his youth in Dresden.

'Half of it is junk'

For years, anonymous sellers have been trying to sell the contested sketches for many millions of euros. But Richter is finally making public his anger about the trade in the early sketches.

"A lot of the things are not mine," the Cologne-based artist told the German Press Agency (dpa). "Half of it is junk and should be burned."

He says that a lot of the work, which is not signed, was also produced by his wife at the time. Richter added that the origins of the drawings was "completely unknowable," and that he himself only saw photos of the bundle of works and didn't know much about it. The matter was "only annoying and unpleasant," he said.

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No wonder a buyer has not been found for the 60-year-old works, the originals of which few people have seen. Richter's paintings are among the most expensive ever sold by a living painter. His Abstraktes Bild 599 (1986) went for £30.4 million (€36.6 million, $40.6 million) at Sotheby's in London in 2015 — then the second-highest price for a living artist. Still, there are too many doubts surrounding this collection of early works that are again making headlines in Germany.

Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild 599 (picture-alliance/dpa/Andy Rain)

Gerhard Richter's painting "Abstraktes Bild 599" displayed at Sotheby's auction house in London in 2015

A long journey home

Richter studied at the Dresden Art Academy from 1951 to 1956. In 1961 he fled to West Germany with his wife at the time. He had to leave behind his works in the GDR — including the sketches and drafts currently under dispute.

In the meantime, the bundle was offered to the former art dealer Helge Achenbach, who had been formerly imprisoned for art fraud in 2015 (he was released last year). Achenbach says he wants to secure the work for the Gerhard Richter Archive of the Dresden State Art Collections. The artist has transferred the ownership rights of his Dresden works to the archive.

Achenbach told dpa that the anonymous seller had tried to sell the works for €120 million some years ago. Five to 10 million is the sum currently under discussion. The former art dealer is hoping a "white knight" is prepared to buy the sketches and donate them to the archive.

If Achenbach can facilitate the deal, he will not demand a fee, saying it's not about business but historical responsibility. "The only place where [the collection] belongs is in the archive," he said.

Gerhard Richter, 1970 (G. Richter 2017)

A portrait of Gerhard Richter from 1970 that is currently held in Dresden

Getting a fair price

Art market professionals believe the works are overvalued. "Selling Richters is difficult enough today," said Robert Ketterer, an auction house manager in Munich.

While Richter's large-format masterpieces are still traded at top prices, the market for the artist's smaller works has been in decline in recent years. Ketterer estimates the value of the described art bundle at €100,000 — a far cry from the current €5 million asking price.

Some art experts still insist that the drawings have important value as documents of an emerging young artist who would go on to find international fame. While perhaps not suitable for a museum, they would indeed be a valuable addition to the Gerhard Richter archive as "documentary material," according to its head, Dietmar Elger.

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Elger describes some of the drawings, which he once saw in his office about a decade ago, as primarily made up of designs and detailed sketches such as hand postures. They would be a welcome addition to the Richter archive, he told dpa.

Formerly an employee in Gerhard Richter's Cologne studio, Elger knows the owners of the bundle. He says sketches came from the abandoned house of Richter's parents-in-law, who had also fled to the west. "This work was discovered in the attic by people who subsequently lived in this house. They took them for themselves. But, as we from the Gerhard Richter Archive and also our lawyers believe, they are not legally the owners."

Origin unknown

Elger also confirms that a "substantial proportion" of the works in the bundle were not even authored by Richter, and again points out that the works are not signed. In addition, the style of the later Richter was not yet recognizable in the drawings. Elger's conclusion: "They don't have great art historical or market value."

Nevertheless, the Richter archive has previously attempted to acquire the bundle but "always failed because of the increasing financial demands," said Elger. Regarding Achenbach's public mediation efforts, Elger said: "It would have made more sense to treat the whole thing more discreetly."

The contested Richter art bundle echoes the court case in April in which a Cologne man was fined €3,150 ($3,529) for taking four sketches from Richter's recycling bin in 2016 and trying to sell them at auction. The court said that the works had an estimated value of around €60,000 ($67,000); similar works are available on the market for around €80,000.

sb/eg (with dpa)

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