As exhibitions multiply and auction houses up the bids, Swiss art is gaining momentum on the international scene. But there are still bargains to be had, experts say.

Illustration above: Alice Bailly (1872 – 1938), Joy in the Woods, 1922, Öl auf Leinwand, Lot 73, Sotheby’s 28 November 2011 sale

Original article published by on 26 November, 2011: see LINK

The next two weeks will see a string of auctions of Swiss art by major auction houses in Zurich: Sotheby’s (28 November), Christies (5 December) and Koller (9 December) are offering 500 works up for tender.

Auction sales of Swiss art have been taking place since the seventies, but for the past few years they have started to edge out of the confines of a conservative local art market. Paintings by Swiss Neo-Impressionists, Cuneo Amiet and Giovanni Giacometti and Symbolist, Ferdinand Hodler, are reaching prices that no one would have dared predict five years ago.

This small Cuneo Amiet (1868-1961), Hausbau II, 1908, Oil on canvas, (60 x 55 cm) is priced by Christie’s between € 650’000 and € 970’000.  (CHF 800’000 and CHF 1’200’000) for the December 5, 2011 sale.

“Even in these brackets, the paintings are not commanding anywhere near the price that works of comparable quality by mainstream Modernists would obtain,” said Hans-Peter Keller, Christie’s Head of Swiss Art.

He said that there are still “exquisite pieces at reasonable prices”. All three on-line catalogues (see links) propose works starting at less than CHF 2’000. asked Matthias Frehner, Director of Bern Fine Arts Museum, what he thought of the claim that Swiss art is climbing the ladder of international recognition. The Bern Kunstmuseum has recently presented in Munich, Germany, an exhibition entirely dedicated to Swiss art. According to Frehner, it was a resounding success.

He attributes the nascent international interest in Swiss art to two surprising factors. He said that a younger generation of art historians has inspired the rediscovery of local art history. He also believes that the spectacular success of contemporary Swiss artists, like Pipilotti Rist, or Fischli and Weiss, has had a trickle-down effect on the entire art scene.

Frehner points out that one of the major art collections of Modernist Swiss art (from the beginning of the last century) is in Dallas, Texas, the result of the collecting by an American couple, Nona and Richard Barrett.

“We tend to overlook the fact that Swiss artists rarely stayed at home and were often active proponents in the major art currents of their times,” Frehner insisted, giving as examples both Amiet and Giacometti who were involved with German Expressionists, Holder, who was a Symbolist, or Meret Oppenheimer, who contributed significantly to Surrealism.

He also gives credit to the many Swiss families of art collectors who recognized the worth of their homegrown artists, and he is convinced that annual fairs, like Art Basel, contribute to spreading the word, especially beyond Swiss frontiers.

“We discovered in Munich that the public enjoyed the discovery and fresh outlook that Swiss art offers,” Frehner explained.

This is a good time to enter the market for Swiss art, Keller advised, since there has been little movement until now, as works tended to stay in collections. But the context is changing quickly as Swiss art becomes more visible and is more largely exposed.

The fact that many of the art works were originally bought directly from the artists in their studios (another Swiss specificity) helps determine the provenance, added Stephanie Schleining Deschanel, Deputy Head of Sotheby’s Swiss art department. “When you purchase from our auction houses, you have the guarantee of the authenticity of the work.” A tremendous amount of research goes into preparing each sale, she said.

The on-line catalogues of the up-coming sales are a good entry point for newcomers who know nothing about Swiss art. Keller has discovered that thematic presentations are appealing to sellers, who become more inclined to part with pieces from their collections. They are also an agreeable way of walking through 250 years of art history.

That the power of the web in propagating the news to the outside world that Swiss art is desirable is obvious, Matthias Frehner acknowledged. According to Schleining, it has also made the role of auction houses more transparent.

Keller pointed out that this winter’s Christie’s sale is unusual, because a large number of the works on sale do not have a reserve price (in red in the catalogue). This means that the highest bidder wins, even if the bid is only a fraction of the estimated value.

“This is a great place to start a collection,” he affirmed.


Christie’s e-catalogue

Koller e-catalogue

Sotheby’s e-catalogue


Gianadda Foundation

Kunstmuseum Bern

Kunstmuseum Solothurn


Cuno Amiet and the cousins Augusto and Giovanni Giacometti (Alberto’s father) eschewed traditional alpine scenes to offer the Swiss a taste for Modernism, using glowing colours and diffused images. They hold the lion’s share in the sales, along with Ferdinand Holder and Albert Anker.

Swiss Expressionists Hermann Schere and Albert Müller founded “Rot-Blau” (red and blue) after meeting the German Expressionist, Ludwig Kirchner, in Davos in 1917. They are represented by fierce and fiery works from the twenties. Look out for Otto Morach.


Otto Morach (1887-1973), Recto: Selbstbildnis mit Stillleben, um 1914 (selfportrait) / verso: Sitzende Frau, um 1914, Oil on jute, Lot 225, Christie’s, 5 December 2011 sale

“Concrete art”, initiated in Zurich by Max Bill (who could not afford to stay at the Bauhaus after his teeth were knocked out during a theatre rehearsal) represents a rare example of a movement that originated in Switzerland and had a profound impact on similar ventures elsewhere.

Max Bill (1908-1994), Pythagoräisches dreieck im quadrat II, 1974-80, Oil on canvas, Lot 157, Christie’s, 5 December 2011 sale.

Discoveries in the upcoming auction sales also include early works by Hans Erni, when he still went by the name of François Grèque, and where similarities with Picasso’s figurative period are striking.


Hans Erni (1901), Collective number of two: Harlekin / Frauenbildnis mit Haarkranz, Gouache on paper, Lot 24, Christie’s, 5 December 2011 sale

Christies has a substantial number of pieces on sale from the Beyeler estate, a provision that was made by Ernst Beyeler before he passed away in 2010 in order to finance his Foundation in Basel.

An original Alberto Giacometti drawing is priced under CHF 10’000 and has been authenticated by the eponymous foundation.

Bidding can take place in person, on phone (register and be called), by web (register at least 24 hours ahead) or through “absentee bids”.


An Amiet exhibition, “Joy of my Life” Eduard Gerber Collection is currently taking place at Kunstmuseum Bern until 15 January 2012.

A landmark exhibition that draws parallels between Holder and Amiet is on at Kunstmuseum Solothurn until 2 January 2012.

Ernest Biéler (1863-1948), considered the “Anker from Suisse romande”, will be the subject of a large retrospective at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda (1 December 2011 – 26 February 2012), the same that was recently presented in Bern.

Ernest Biéler (1863-1948), Jeune Chevrier, Watercolour and Gouache over pencil on paper, Lot 182, Christie’s, 5 December 2011 sale

Pipilotti Rist ‘Eyeball Massage’ is currently on at the Hayward Gallery in London until 8 January 2012.

The works of Peter Fischli and David Weiss are currently on view at Tate Liverpool, the Minneapolis Walker Art Center, Paris Pompidou Centre and the Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum.

Félix Vallotton, a Swiss painter who was in close contact with the French Nabis, will be subject of a major retrospective at Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2013.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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