Swiss Finesse at Koller Auctions

Swiss-based, family owned Koller Auctions is a great springboard for getting into collecting Swiss art.

Koller Auctions, the largest Swiss auction house, has been at the heart of Switzerland’s art scene since it was founded in Zurich almost sixty years ago. During this time, Koller has managed to grow in importance by adapting to the ever-evolving art market, while remaining in the hands of the same family and maintaining a stellar reputation. For the past fifteen years, Koller has been managed by second-generation Cyril Koller. Cyril has conferred a resolutely modern image on the company, developing departments such as PostWar & Contemporary Art, Impressionist & Modern Art, Design and Wristwatches, while assuring Koller’s traditional strengths in fields such as Old Master paintings, fine furniture, jewellery and Asian art.

“There are clear advantages to buying and selling art in Switzerland” says Cyril Koller, “from the intelligent use of import and export laws, to the efficient and practical freeport system, to one of the lowest VAT rates in Europe, we are fortunate to be able to offer excellent conditions to our customers.” The results of Koller’s auctions reflect this: the list of world record prices is impressive, and Koller’s Zurich auction results are often in line with those realised in London or New York. Swiss Art is a collecting category that is unique to Switzerland and it is also one of the most dynamic in the current market. From the start, Koller has made Swiss Art one of its specialities and recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its dedicated Swiss Art auctions with a world record price, 4.05 million Swiss Francs for a triptych by Giovanni Giacometti.

Giacometti, the father of artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti, painted the three-part landscape in 1904 for the luxury hotel Waldhaus Flims in the Swiss Grison Alps. “For eighty years the painting was forgotten” explains Cyril Koller: “It was taken down and put into storage shortly after it was installed, possibly because Giacometti’s style – very modern for the time – was perceived as being a bit too avant-garde for the hotel’s more conservative guests.” Giovanni Giacometti, Panorama of Flims Albert Anker, Turmstunde in Ins Koller has made numerous records at Swiss art sales. The public can often continue to enjoy these works once they change hands. “A particularity about Swiss Art collectors is that they often lend works from their private collections to public exhibitions” says Cyril Koller. This was very good news to the residents of the region of the Hotel Waldhaus, who were concerned about the important work disappearing forever into a private collection. That a leading Swiss auction house would offer Swiss Art is perhaps a given, but what is surprising about this collecting field is its importance to the overall art market.

The Swiss can hardly be characterised as patriotic flag-wavers, but they are very often proud of their heritage and they are avid collectors of what they consider to be the best their country has to offer. While some Swiss artists, such as Ferdinand Hodler, Felix Vallotton, Paul Klee and Alberto Giacometti achieved fame and success abroad, many others like Albert Anker, Giovanni Segantini and Giovanni Giacometti worked mainly in their homeland, but they are no less well-loved by Swiss collectors because of this. The world auction record for a painting by the 19th century Bernese artist, Albert Anker, set in 2013 by Koller, is a staggering 7.5 million Swiss Francs. In that year alone, Koller realised over 26 million Swiss Francs in sales of Swiss art. Alongside these million-dollar paintings, there are dozens of Swiss artists not well-known outside the country but whose exquisite works have graced the homes of Swiss collectors for centuries.

The Western Swiss and Valais schools of painting produced many fine artists such as Ernst Bieler, Fran.ois Bocion, Alexandre Calame and Fran.ois Diday, all of whose works sell regularly in the five and six figures in Koller’s auctions. Each school has its own style: the Geneva school of Calame and Diday is characterised by dramatic Romantic-style landscapes, while Valais painters like Bieler and Raphael Ritz preferred to depict local residents in traditional costume against a majestic mountainous backdrop. Collectors outside the country are taking a serious interest. Switzerland has been described as combining the light of Italy with the skies of Northern Europe. These unique atmospheric conditions have attracted artists from other countries, such as England’s J.M.W. Turner. Others, such as Gustave Courbet and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, came to Switzerland to escape political turmoil or war. The Dada movement was started in Zurich during World War I by a group of artists in exile, along with several Swiss artists, and it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Today, Switzerland remains a flourishing centre for contemporary art, and Zürich was chosen as the host of the Manifesta 11 art biennale. Its position on the crossroads of Europe has inspired a particular character in its inhabitants as well as its art – steeped in tradition yet open to innovation – which also aptly describes the philosophy of Koller Auctions in its approach to the art market of the coming century.


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