Art Market

Joseph Beuys Built His Legacy on Anti-Capitalist Work. It’s Now Worth More Than $20 Million

Nate Freeman
May 1, 2018 8:23PM
Joseph Beuys
Der Spiegel, 1979-1980
Korff Stiftung GmbH

In 1981, the art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, then 18 years old, went with his classmates to Vienna’s modern art museum, where he encountered Joseph Beuys’s Basisraum Nasse Wäsche (1979), an installation that involves wet laundry, a bucket of grease, and long metal gutters. He hated it.

But Ropac started reading about the artist and eventually went to see him speak in Vienna, where he fell under the spell of Beuys’s priest-like aura, overpowering personality, and devotion to making his life his art. Ropac wrote him a letter begging to be taken on in any way, and Beuys let him come on board as an intern.

It was the fall of 1982, and the curator Sir Norman Rosenthal had asked Beuys to participate in a show at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. Instead of bringing work down to install in the show, Beuys moved much of his studio from Dusseldorf and Ropac clocked in at the makeshift Berlin studio, cleaning up and sometimes going out to pick up beer for the artist.

“Beuys didn’t really want to participate, he didn’t have an idea, he didn’t have a piece ready, so he brought the [entirety] of his studio to Berlin, and I was one of the people they hired,” Ropac said. “So for almost a month, I was able to work with him, as a very low assistant.”

Fast forward three decades, and Ropac is still heavily involved in the late artist’s work. In April, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac announced it had secured the right to represent the Joseph Beuys estate. To many, it’s a sign that Beuys—long a critical darling revered among artists and scholars—has arrived as a market star, as well.  

On view through June 16th at Ropac’s London gallery is the most important Beuys show in the U.K. in a decade, with sculptures on sale for as much as £10 million ($13.6 million), over 10 times the artist’s 2016 auction record of £854,000 ($1.16 million). This price jump reflects the volume of private sales where Ropac said works routinely sell for figures between $10 million and $20 million, and cited one instance of a work selling for far more than $20 million.

Installation view of Joseph Beuys,  Hirschdenkmäler (The Stag Monuments), 1982, at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 2018. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.


“We haven’t seen a major piece at auction in years,” he said. “All the major works that changed hands were private transactions.”

The centerpiece of the show in London is a sprawling sculptural installation work, Hirschdenkmäler (“Stag Monuments”) (1982), a series of benches, sculptures, and tables that surround a giant mound of clay set on stilts to represent the titular stag; it was acquired by Ropac from the estate in 2014. The entire work, with its original elements, has not been installed since the same 1982 show in Berlin that Ropac was hired to work on as an intern, and is fiercely sought after by Beuys collectors and institutions trying to acquire his work. Two-thirds of the work in the show is on loan from other collections and not for sale, but because Hirschdenkmäler is owned by the gallery, Ropac said it’s conceivable he could part with it—but for a price that would make it significantly more expensive than the other works in the show.

All of this is even more surprising because Beuys’s work is fully predicated upon the power of anti-capitalist, anti-market, anti-elite art: art that can be owned by the masses, art that throbs with the force of egalitarianism. His performative practice—which he dubbed his “actions”—included lecturing often to get his pro-democracy message to the people, and opening his courses at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf to every student who applied. And he mass-produced work in editions to flood the market, which had the effect of lowering the prices.

“Joseph Beuys consistently pursued the democratic ideal of creating affordable original works so that art was no longer the preserve of the wealthy elite,” wrote Dr. Eugen Blume, former director of Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof and curator of a 2015 Beuys “multiples” show at New York’s Mitchell-Innes & Nash, in an essay accompanying that exhibition. “His concerns, however, were not centered on merely the social aspect of distributing art, but with a larger universal notion of which he was the creator.”

The private collecting of large-scale installation work by Beuys, then, could have troubled an artist who wanted nothing to do with the high end of the market. His political leanings were populist to the extent that he wanted his art to be for the masses, not for rich art patrons. He proclaimed that “everyone is an artist” and co-founded both the German Students Party and the Green Party, movements that pushed for egalitarianism and social justice. In every way, he was an artist who resisted being collectible.

Installation view of Joseph Beuys, “Utopia at the Stag Monuments,” at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 2018. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.

But in the last decade, prices for Beuys’s works have gotten so high that most institutions can’t afford to buy them, unless they are gifted by wealthy collectors. In 2014, Das Kapital Raum (1970–77), an important installation that was built for the 1980 Venice Biennale, was put on the market after being housed for 30 years at the Hallen für Neue Kunst in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. After a protracted legal dispute between the institution and the three collectors who jointly owned the work, the Schaffhausen Supreme Court ruled that the work could be sold, and it was purchased by the Berlin collector Erich Marx, who then permanently loaned it to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. Ropac said the work set a new record for the artist.

“We do know the price it sold for—I don’t think it was entirely public, but Mr. Marx was quite open about it [with art dealers] that it was more than $20 million,” Ropac said. “This was the only kind of almost private price that was confirmed among people in the market.”

Another aspect of the Beuys market involves the acquisition of a series that he called his “multiples,” and it is another example of the difficulties institutions have in acquiring major works by the artist. His multiples are in essence Duchampian ready-mades, and address themes that run through Beuys’s whole body of work. Included in the hundreds of multiples that Beuys produced during his lifetime are sleds with felt blankets and animal fat, which concern his (quite possibly apocryphal) story of his Luftwaffe plane being shot down during World War II, only to be saved by Tartar tribesmen who kept him warm and fed him.

Beuys’s multiples also include reproductions of political pamphlets, his iconic felt suits, and photos of the artist wearing them, often at a lectern mid-gesticulation. There is detritus from his actions—felt blackboard erasures, iron buckets full of fat—or discrete tableaux that Beuys designated as one of his works, like a lemon placed next to a bright-yellow light bulb. There are around 600 works that Beuys deemed “multiples,” and he created each one in edition, but some have hundreds of editions, while others only have a few—making some of the multiples much more rare than others.

The number of multiples keeps their prices down. If you are a collector with the means to acquire very expensive art and choose to buy cheap multiples, it could indicate a true devotion to the artist rather than following the siren song of hype. And there is the meta-market commentary inherent in the ready-made: When a bidder at Van Ham Fine Art Auctions in Cologne purchased Beuys’s Pflasterstein (1975) last December for £1,400 ($1,650), they were spending over a thousand dollars on a small black rock. While Beuys was alive and still making the multiples, such a work would have been much less expensive.

Joseph Beuys
Das Kapital, 1982-1983
Joseph Beuys
Das Kapital, 1982-1983

And yet, in the decade following the artist’s death in 1986, collectors found a way to turn this sweeping egalitarian gesture into a covetable, collectable work. If you were able to locate and acquire nearly all of the 600-plus objects that Beuys deemed his found-art “multiples,” it could be treated as something akin to one of his larger works, and as a pivotal part of his practice as a whole. After all, Beuys did say that “if you have all my multiples, then you have me completely.”

Multiple dealers who have offered near-complete collections of the multiples say they can go for figures between $10 million and $20 million on the secondary market, like his installations, beyond the budget of many museums. But public institutions were able to acquire these multiples collections in the 1990s, led by academically minded curators who pushed to spend on them.

In the early 1990s, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, acquired a trove of multiples from the collection of Alfred and Marie Greisinger, who owned a café in Baden-Baden, Germany. The Basel-based surgeon Willy Reber and his wife, Charlotte, also had a extensive collection, and it is now housed at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University. The English collectors Andy and Christine Hall, who have a private museum in Derneburg, Germany, have been fighting to get the last few multiples that would give them a complete set; in May 2017, Andy Hall told the Financial Times that they had 550 out of the 650 or so that were produced. “It’s just a question of me getting the energy to go out and track down the remaining ones,” he said.

And in 2006, one of the two collections of multiples held by Berlin-based Reinhard Schlegel was acquired by Eli Broad, adding 570 works to the collection that would populate the Los Angeles museum that bears his name. Carol Vogel of the New York Times reported at the time that the price was $3 million; ARTnews was told by Beuys expert Gerard Goodrow, who had advised Schlegel on other transactions, that it cost $5 million.

It was a coup for the institution, and in 2009, The Broad Art Foundation loaned more than 500 of the multiples to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a landmark show.

“There was no comparable assembly of Beuys multiples in the western United States at that time,” Joanne Heyler, the founding director of the Broad, said in an email. “It seemed that having such a rare and strong grouping of Beuys multiples would bring something uniquely resonant to Los Angeles, home to so many top-rated art schools and young practicing artists.”

Joseph Beuys
Badewanne für eine Heldin, 1984
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Sometimes the museums that would be interested in major Beuys works simply do not have the cash on hand to buy them. By 2015, Schlegel consigned his second large collection of multiples to Mitchell-Innes & Nash, the Chelsea gallery founded by auction veterans Lucy Mitchell-Innes and David Nash. In nine years, the pricetag had jumped from $3 million to $10 million, the gallery said.

But no institution had the funds to pony up.

“He had given us the collection to sell as a whole—we didn’t sell any individual multiples at all,” said Lucy Dew, a director at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash, who helped organize the show. “It’s difficult to sell a full collection that isn’t 100 percent complete. We were looking for a museum, or maybe someone in Asia who is trying to build up a collection of Beuys.”

Institutional collectors are still finding the work hard to buy. Securing a set of multiples now, with a museum’s budget, would be difficult, Heyler said.

“We were very fortunate to acquire a nearly full set of the multiples all at once, which is very rare, 12 years ago,” Heyler said. “At this point, it is unlikely the market is going to cool for such an established figure.”

Hirschdenkmäler, the centerpiece of the Ropac show in London, is, according to the gallery’s press materials, “the most important environment by Beuys that isn’t owned by a major museum.” And while Ropac again pressed that it was not for sale in any official way, he said it could be acquired if the right institution was interested. He wouldn’t disclose the price, but said it was much higher than anything else in the show, and in the range of the $20 million Erich Marx paid for Das Kapital Raum (1970–77).

“I’m not in a rush with this,” Ropac said. “It definitely has to go to a major museum, so there’s no doubt about it.”

Ropac said he has already sold work in the London show to Asian collectors, and he thinks that’s where a major work like Hirschdenkmäler will end up. There’s a growing interest in Beuys’s work in Asia, and the institutions there don’t yet have the kind of Beuys holdings one sees in the U.S. and Europe—but they do have enough money to foot the bill.

“In China, in Korea, they’ve been circling Beuys for a while,” he said. “Nothing major has been sold in Asia, but there’s definitely the appetite for it. And this is partly our job for the future, that his work will go to the more important institutions in this part of the world. There’s a lot of possibilities.”

Nate Freeman