Going once, going twice, going three times – at the Dorotheum

Everybody in Vienna knows the Dorotheum or, at least, has heard of it. However, to find out more about this place, its history and the work done at it, I arrange a meeting with Michaela Strebl-Pühringer, the Head of Marketing.

The Dorotheum has a long, long history – so, my first question is what it is like to work for such an institution?

“Working for an institution with such a long tradition is, of course, very exciting and makes you feel proud. The Dorotheum is not only one the oldest and largest auction houses in the world, it also is a leader in Central Europe. At the same time, it is a modern company with international marketing and an excellent internet presence,” explained Ms. Strebl-Pühringer, smiling and muses: “I don’t know whether the founder of our house — Emperor Joseph I — could have imagined us running a successful online auction.”

Probably not. After all, the telephone was not even around in 1707 and social media were limited to handwritten letters and conversations between this house’s experts and its customers.

Speaking of customers, I am curious what kinds of people are clients of the Dorotheum at the present and I am told that the auction house offers art and collectibles from a range of about 40 different types, resulting in a very diverse clientele: art lovers, collectors, museums and institutions, investors – basically anyone who likes beautiful things.

And these come from all over the world – Austria, Germany, Italy, the U.K., France – with the Benelux and the U.S.A. both very strongly represented, as well as art lovers from Russia, China, Japan, and the Arab states participating in auctions.

The main painting and antiques departments are particularly popular: contemporary art, the Modern, the 19th century and old masters, art nouveau, silver, design and jewelry and classic motor vehicles.

There are also special items among this vast range from time to time – and so I ask about the “most exciting” object that has even been auctioned at the Dorotheum.

“The most exciting object was our most expensive ever,” said Ms. Strebl-Pühringer. “It was a painting by the artist Frans Francken, whose artworks are very rarely seen on the market and it was about a very complex theme – a mythological interpretation of the subject ‘Hercules at the Crossroads‘ (Herkules am Scheideweg) with elements from the Greek myth and Christian tradition. When I look at this painting today, I keep finding something new every time and cannot take my eyes of it. The painting came to Vienna via a consultation day in Berlin and the seller would have been happy with a few hundred thousand euros. The price kept rising higher and higher at a very dramatic auction and the winning bid was more than 7 million euros, the highest price that has ever been paid at an auction in Austria.”

Wow, that is exciting – there are often surprises for the staff, as well as for the customers, when it comes to valuations and auctions. Before a piece is put to auction and included in the catalog, it is examined closely by an expert. I am curious how many specialists actually work at the Dorotheum and how items are valued – what do you need to know to be able to do this?

I learn that “the Dorotheum has access to about 300 experts from different fields in Vienna and worldwide. They are all top international experts. Often, they have a specialized education or degree as an art historian, goldsmith, or furniture specialist. For many of our staff the specialist knowledge has run in the family to some extent – they have grown up with antiques. In addition, our experts work with international museums and institutions and get expertise from these sources.”

The Dorotheum building itself is something worth seeing and a lot of visitors come here to view special items before auctions.

Our conversation took place at a time when many businesses and museums were closed in Vienna due to the Covid 19 lockdown and so I ask how the auction business is doing during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Do you have to make changes to do the auctions? Has there been an increase in interest or is it flat?”

“The Dorotheum has already got a lot of experience in online auctions,” said Ms. Strebl-Pühringer. “We have put all our auctions online and have been very successful as a result. Now, even more people are visiting us and our website. You can also go on a virtual tour through the Dorotheum via the Webpage. We will probably carry out the large auctions using live bidding.”

“Do you have a favorite type of object among all these wonderful items?” I ask her and find out that she is really interested in many of the stories and objects that come to auction and has not special preferences – there is always something exciting at every sale.

“Do you remember any special auctions?”

“One special, extraordinary auction among others was the sale of the Wiesenthal Collection. The classic cars were displayed in the Kamineum of the National Library, where the auction also took place.”

One question I have always wanted to ask someone from an auction house: “Does the auctioneer have his or her own gavel or are they provided by the Dorotheum?”

Ms. Strebl-Pühringer laughs and explains: One of the unique things about the Dorotheum is that we don’t use a gavel, but a bell is rang instead. We have the bells in-house and they also include a couple of historical pieces.”

A trip to the Dorotheum – whether virtual or analog – is well worth it!