Cologne 07.–10.11.2024 #artcologne2024

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It is All About Love

Sasa Hanten-Schmidt is a multitalent - lawyer and art expert, collector and author. We talked with her about her various roles in the art business, her latest book Play with Me, and her most adventurous art acquisition.

Sasa Hanten-Schmidt at the photo shoot for her book with Viennese models

A Beletage in the best location in Cologne, where, as you can see at first glance, contemporary art plays a leading role. Works by Rosemarie Trockel, Matthias Herrmann, Konrad Klapheck, Angela Glajcar, and other luminaries adorn the space. Sasa Hanten-Schmidt welcomes us and takes it from there. Despite her recent journey from Vienna and her impending visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair, she exudes mental alertness and a cheerful informality. It's evident that she relishes her immersion in the art world, sharing her insights with verve and passion.

You recently published an autofictional book that encapsulates your experiences within what you refer to as the art operating system. How would you define your role in this system?

With a first name like Sasa (in German, “Tausendsasa” means “polymath”), I play the role of a jack of all trades. It's an apt description of what I am in the art market. This market is a realm of diversity, marked by a profound division of labor, offering various roles, many of which I undertake. I don't create art myself, but I consistently support collectors and artists.

Could you describe your various roles in more detail?

I serve as an expert, a lawyer, a studio manager, and an author. The art market is characterized by its diversity and its pronounced division of labor. And then, of course, I collect art myself.

How do you bring your legal craft and art together? Aren't they two completely different worlds? One crystal clear, the other quite opaque?

I don't think these two worlds are that far apart. The more you know about law and expert witnessing, the more you get the feeling that this is actually the opaque, Kafkaesque realm. Whereas in art, the paths are sometimes more transparent, easier to understand. But it's certainly a unique selling point to merge these two worlds, if you can.

Where do you find the convergence of these two worlds in your work?

The common ground is often found in the language spoken in artist studios and the needs of collectors. It's also relevant in addressing concerns about passing on one's art collection to the next generation. Ultimately, the paramount element is the human factor. People sometimes believe that a well-crafted contract or a solid foundation can resolve everything legally. In truth, it always revolves around human emotions, even in legal matters. If things don't progress smoothly, it may culminate in a courtroom battle. When things go well, negotiations around a table can lead to sensible resolutions.

You often have to assess the value of art in inheritance or estate matters. How do you approach this task?

Art valuation is complex, but no secret. It’s not an occult technique; it's guided by transparent standards. The real question is whether one possesses the expertise to navigate them. One cannot simply rely on browsing a database and picking a few results without understanding their context.

Art valuation varies depending on the purpose - be it insurance, inheritance tax, or disputes among heirs. Each context requires a distinct approach. A valuation becomes truly worthwhile when carried out by an expert. Attempting it without the necessary expertise is akin to trying to be a national coach of a sports team as a hobby.

Why does a work of art hold a higher value on an insurance policy compared to, say, an estate tax assessment?

Insurance coverage is focused on replacement value. It considers the need to replace, for example, a Neo Rauch on Thursday morning, which entails finding a comparable artwork on the market, taking into account all associated costs like commissions, transportation, and taxes. On the other hand, estate valuation primarily revolves around the dealer's purchase price, with an assumption that everything enters the market under distress sale conditions. This necessitates considering corresponding discounts, which the law acknowledges. It also encompasses the costs associated with storage, archiving, and restoration. Remarkably, legislators exhibit significant authority in their assessment of the art market, often more so than the participants.

Sasa Hanten-Schmidt

The expert and collector, portrayed by Lukas Beck Copyright: Photo: Lukas Beck, Wien

You often advocate for purchasing art from galleries or art fairs like ART COLOGNE. What drives this recommendation?

Acquiring art from renowned galleries offers the advantage of a well-documented provenance. Thus, I generally discourage buying directly from artist studios, which might seem like a quick bargain but can result in issues during valuation. Art that has been exhibited and boasts a robust provenance history, that perhaps was with a good collector previously, tends to receive higher valuations. On the other hand, works acquired in an informal manner, say through a cash transaction in a parking lot, tend to have a weaker provenance, causing potential valuation problems.

What's your advice when it comes to art that has significantly decreased in value over time? Should one consider parting with it?

It's a question that resonates with the prevailing trend of decluttering. Everywhere, people are encouraged to simplify and let go of possessions they no longer need. In the realm of art, however, the situation is different, and I would advise against this. The art market operates in different cycles, and values can fluctuate over time. With patience, you might be surprised by who comes back and who never does. I've seen many people come and go. Moreover, we collectors thrive on abundance.

Speaking of being a collector, why do you personally collect art?

The allure of a couple of paintings for the walls is never enough!

While two T-shirts and a swimsuit might suffice, art requires diversity to stir a multitude of emotions. Our tastes evolve and mature as we accumulate experiences and contemplate art. This leads to more informed, reflective decisions - or occasionally, impulsive ones. At its core, art is about touching the heart. Most people experience a profound lack of transcendence in their lives. Art can enable one to connect with one’s soul.

So, for you, collecting is a means of self-realisation rather than a quest for trophies?

The notion of art as an investment and competing with neighbors tends to surface unconsciously. The art market is rife with overproduction, and only a small fraction of art is sold in relation to the total production. However, it's a distribution market where value is conferred based on merit. To be recognized as a serious collector, one must work on establishing one’s value. In this role, artists and galleries are more inclined to collaborate and exhibit.

What's the most audacious decision you've made as a collector?

One of my boldest moves was commissioning a portrait of myself by A.R. Penck for my second state examination. At the time, it seemed extravagant because it cost me half a year's income. I was apprehensive that the outcome might not align with my expectations, as commissioned works must be accepted. Given Penck’s eclectic body of work, anything was possible. However, I was fortunate, as the portrait turned out well, and of course I still have it today. Looking back, I'm glad I took the risk; it was a wonderfully eccentric gesture.

You're well-acquainted with the other side of the art business. For over thirteen years, you've managed the studio of sculptor Angela Glajcar, who is renowned for her monumental paper installations. How did this role come about?

I embraced an unconventional role in this capacity. Today, it's nearly mainstream for artists to have someone handle the organizational and business aspects of studio management, enabling them to focus on their creative work. I had prior experience working in artists' studios as a young person and student, so this wasn't unfamiliar terrain. My goal was to establish a best-practice, checkbook-maintained studio that could serve as a model. I held immense admiration for Angela Glajcar's work, and when the opportunity arose to work with her, I extended the offer. At the time, she had yet to gain widespread recognition. Since then, her status has transformed, and I've continued to find immense satisfaction in being wholly responsible for this role because I'm unafraid of what it entails.

Could you elucidate on what it means to have a “checkbook-maintained” studio?

A “checkbook-maintained” studio operates with a meticulously maintained catalogue of works, updated daily. It adheres to established standards for every aspect of studio management. I also strived to establish a global network of galleries representing Angela, enabling us to remain independent of regional markets. In the past, this might have seemed audacious, but during the pandemic, it proved incredibly savvy. There was always a gallery open somewhere, offering the opportunity to exhibit her work. Now, it's simply a good, lived reality.

Another facet of your work is your role as an author. You recently published Play with Me, an autofictional book that's both entertaining and insightful, shedding light on your experiences in the art world. What prompted you to write this book?

I used to jest that if I at some point I didn’t want to earn money on the art mar-ket anymore, I'd write a book. I even playfully threatened individuals with this idea. Eventually, my publisher, Jan Wenzel from Spector Books, with whom I had previously collaborated on reference books, urged me to take the plunge. He encouraged me to write the book in my natural conversational style, a reflection of how we all genuinely converse. Moreover, I must admit that many books and films about the art world have irked me by portraying art as a lifeless product of research. While they might be factually accurate, they often lack emotional authenticity in depicting the art market. I felt that with my ex-tensive experiences, knowledge, and writing background, I could create a more authentic insider's perspective.

Sasa Hanten-Schmidt reads from her book "Play with me“.

Sasa Hanten-Schmidt reads from her book "Play with me". Copyright: Photo: Bettina Fürst-Fastré, Cologne

The title 'Play with Me' is rather unconventional for an art-focused book. What inspired this choice?

The title came to me relatively quickly because I'm an inherently playful person, and I believe that's a significant advantage. Play is more integral to our lives than we often realize. We might imagine that we make rational decisions, but I've delved deeply into game theory, which essentially explains the dynamics of collecting. Often, it's not merely about the content but the competition and the game itself. There's a continual interplay between collectors, gallery owners, and artists.

Your book cover presents you surrounded by half-naked male models in a kind of art historical tableau, a clever play on our attention.

A book cover serves as a canvas to convey the essence and direction of the book.

A subtle provocation is an effective way to hint at the intriguing journey that lies within. In this case, the cover aligns with the theme of art history, but it also serves as my way of reminding the world that, ultimately, it's all about love. That you want art, that you desire it. This is a subject that's underdiscussed and underappreciated.