Cologne 07.–10.11.2024 #artcologne2024

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ART COLOGNE Prize Awarded to Walther König

Walther König is the first bookseller and publisher to be honored with the ART COLOGNE Prize. A portrait.

The publisher and bookseller Walther König. Photo: Hartmut Nägele

The red-brick building, which stands on a busy street corner in the center of Cologne, doesn’t look like a theater or museum, yet it’s a landmark of the German cultural scene.

Four stories high, it is the headquarters of the Walther König bookstore. And it also headquarters the publishing house of Buchhandlung Walther König, which adjoins it.

In his youth, Walther König harbored aspirations of becoming a lawyer, inspired by an uncle he admired. However, after two semesters, he abandoned that path, relocating from Münster to Cologne. There, he embarked on an apprenticeship at the Bücherstube am Dom, under the guidance of art critic Albert Schulze Vellinghausen.

There was something in the air in Cologne at the time.

Two years earlier, a handful of gallery owners had organized the first Cologne Art Market in the Gürzenich, which later became ART COLOGNE. While Museum Ludwig had yet to materialize, the city boasted the Josef Haubrich Collection, showcasing works by Expressionists and proponents of the New Objectivity. Art collector Irene Ludwig and her husband Peter amassed a stunning collection of works by American Pop Artists, Picasso, and notable German talents like Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter - all for considerable sums. Cologne was transforming into an art hub, and right at its core was Walther König, holding court in his influential bookstore.

The red house at Ehrenstraße 4 became a meeting place for artists, gallery owners and art lovers, many of whom frequented it daily. The top floor housed a second-hand bookstore, expanding its unique collection with books encompassing German, English, American, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Japanese art. Walther König’s bookstore became a haven for those seeking rare and exclusive publications.

Monopoly is a big word.

Walther König entrusted his bookstore and publishing house to his son Franz a while ago, not without having first thoroughly convinced himself of his suitability in good Westphalian style.

However, he has initiated a few developments in recent years himself. Monopoly is a big word. But when it comes to museum bookstores, Walther König’s already has a conspicuous presence in in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Brussels, Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Essen, Stuttgart, and Vienna.

The bookseller Walther König clearly suffers from bibliophilia.

Walther König's personal library has legendary status. People who know him deny ever having seen it, so as not to feel embarrassed about telling strangers about the treasures they have been shown.

Of course, Walther König, the older brother of museum director and exhibition organizer Kasper König and uncle of Berlin gallery owner Johann König, also has “normal” editions, though surprisingly few from his own publishing house. His passion is artists' books, works of art in book form, in most cases unique pieces. But not always: one of the books designed by artists that he published himself was the 2003 volume “Findet mich das Glück?” by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. The text is similar to Max Frisch's "Questionnaire", except that the questions are sometimes a little more irreverent and less seriously worded. With a total print run of several hundred thousand copies, "Findet mich das Glück?" ranks among the bestselling artists' books globally.

Walther König once said his book collection was “closely linked to my work as a book dealer.” The reverse is also true. The bookseller Walther König clearly suffers from bibliophilia.