It’s impossible to talk about the evolution of the art business into a global industry over the past three decades without understanding the role played by artnet. Founded in 1989 as a database of art prices – a groundbreaking innovation in a marketplace long defined by obscurantism and information asymmetry – it was the first art business to go online; its news platform, artnet Magazine, became the second-ever online publication (after Slate); its gallery network served as many galleries’ first online presence; and its auction platform led the way for legacy auction houses to enter the digital era. With its emphasis on transparency and efficiency, artnet did much to create the conditions for the headlong modernization of the art market. And it never would have happened if not for the stubborn, quixotic, and deeply idealistic vision of artnet’s founder Hans Neuendorf.
Now 82, Neuendorf led an outsized life in the art world even before artnet. Coming of age in Hamburg amid the wreckage of World War II and entering the art business while still in his teens, he organized the first Pop art show in Germany, championed important artists (like Georg Baselitz) in the face of widespread skepticism, single-handedly brought Sotheby’s to Frankfurt, and created a highly successful art fund. In starting artnet, Neuendorf overcame an unceasing parade of crises and challenges, keeping the company going by selling artworks to fund operations and maintaining a conviction – he might call it naiveté – that success was always right around the corner.
To mark the 30th anniversary of artnet, and to better grasp the historical context that gave rise to it, artnet News editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein sat down with Neuendorf in his corner office atop the Woolworth Building to talk about his life’s work. The following interview is the first installment of a multipart series reflecting the sprawling four-hour conversation.
Q: You were born in Hamburg in 1937, at a time when the German war machine was cranking up and the clouds of World War II were gathering.
A: Yes, it was before the early days of World War II, and I saw a good deal of it. I saw the broken army walking home from Russia for days and days in rows of four – the crippled, badly clad, and sick army was coming home. Those were young men, and they camped out in the woods near our home underneath the tall beach trees. The soldiers hadn’t received any information about where to go or what to do, nor did they have any money or transportation, so what they did is they carved little things out of wood they found there, like nice, complicated walking sticks. As a boy, I would trade with the soldiers – it was my first attempt at buying and selling something.
They wanted cigarettes, and there was an American army camp not very far away where the soldiers received so many cigarettes that they threw them away half-smoked. As boys, we would go there and pick them up and put them in a little containers, and I would bring them into the woods to trade with the German soldiers for a walking stick or something else, like a warm pair of boots that they were still carrying around. I would then go to the farmer and trade these things for a little pig or some other food. That’s how we survived.
Q: What were your parents doing at that time?
A: My father had been in the war. He was in Greece as a service soldier, and when he returned he had to walk home at night, because he had to go through territory in Serbia where there were guerrilla fighters in the bushes who were not in a very good mood about Germans, and were hunting them down. There were 20 when they left Greece, and three arrived home alive.
Q: What about your mother? What did she do during the war?
A: Well, she had three boys – I was the oldest one – and we had been evacuated from Hamburg when it came under heavy bombing from the British Air Force. The British were humane in the sense that they proceeded systematically – they’d bomb one street one night and then the other side of the street the next night, and so we figured out when we had to leave. We lived in an apartment, and I remember we had to evacuate at night in our nightgowns. We got onto a horse-drawn flatbed that took us to the station, where we caught a train out into the country. The government provided a little house for families with children, and we were privileged because my mother had three boys, and boys were what Hitler wanted. That was 1943, and I was five or six.
Q: How did your parents get reunited?
A: Well, we were staying in this little hut, and I don’t remember how long we were there but it was until at least a year after the war ended. One day my mother sent me into town to fetch some bread – at that time the way they did bread was to mix sawdust into the dough – and when I was going there to get that a soldier passed me in the road, and that was my father.
Q: Were the roads filled with returning soldiers?
A: The whole country was completely in pieces when my father came back. Many, many fathers didn’t come back. They were fleeing East Germany, they were fleeing from the Russian army, because the Russian army had a very bad reputation, with the killing and everything else that was going on. But we were friends with some of them. There was a prisoner-of-war camp near where we were, and they were Russians mostly – very sweet boys, 18, 19 years old. Farm boys, even. They taught us how to catch fish without a hook: you go very slowly, and then you have to grab it. They worked for us, chopping wood for the stove and digging the garden, because we had no vegetables – we had to grow it all ourselves. I had a little patch. I was growing tobacco, because I thought that was a good business.
Q: You were obviously an entrepreneur from a young age?
A: Yes. That’s why I began to trade with the farmers, because the farmers had food and we didn’t have any food. Sometimes, though, once the farmers had harvested the potatoes they would also invite townsfolk like us onto the field so we could grab whatever was left over. So, these were potatoes that had been cut through the middle and things like that, and we boys would bring these home so we would have some food. And so we thought, “Oh, it’s good to do that, but a great idea would be to get the whole potatoes from the fields that they haven’t harvested yet.”
Q: How did you start to become interested in art?
A: When I was 10, I switched to another school in a different area, and I had to take the train. And at the train station was a bookstore, so when I was waiting for the train I would look at the books. They were tiny little books—the size of a matchbox—and they had colorful reproductions of artworks on the cover, which was something I had never seen before. These were abstract German artist of the time, like Troekes and Cavael, people you had never heard of. But I thought it was fascinating. I couldn’t have imagined buying them, but what I ultimately got for Christmas was Knaur’s Lexicon of Modern Art, and it had biographies of all the big artists like Chagall, Matisse, Picasso—all of these people. That’s what really got me interested. I read that back and forth until I knew it by heart, practically.
Q: When did you begin to think about buying your own works of art?
A: My father had a friend, he was a Russian cellist. And my father lent him some money, and before he went away the guy left him a big trunk of things that he couldn’t take with him as security. And he never turned up again. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Years afterward, you know what? I found the trunk in the basement. I opened it up, and I looked around, and there I found a [Lyonel] Feininger. It was small work, made out to the neighbor’s children I lived next door to. He made a lot of work for children, including little model trains he made from wood that he carved and painted. Anyway, I found this watercolor. And I knew what it was, because I had read about all the artists.
Q: What did you do?
A: I said to my father, “Can I try to sell this?” “By all means,” he said, “go ahead.” So I took it around, and there were only two galleries in Hamburg at the time—well, one was not really a gallery, it was an art dealer who lived in a very nice villa. He must have been quite wealthy. So I showed it to him, and he offered me 3,000 marks, which was a huge fortune. I asked my father, and he, “Yeah, go ahead.” The dealer gave me cash, and that’s how I started.
Q: So, in the beginning, you spent 300 marks on art in Paris. How much did you make off of that?
A: I doubled the money in one trip. After that, I traveled back and forth for three years or so while I was studying, and I did quite well. I made some money, and I had an inventory of prints, like Manessier, Bissier, Kokoschka, Hartung, Soulages, and other artists who were active in Paris at the time. You know, they called it l’Ecole de Paris. And then I started to think it was embarrassing to go to see people and unpack the prints and then show them at their home, and so I thought, “I must have a gallery.”
At the time, there was only one gallery in Hamburg, which was Brockstedt. Other than that, there were only frame stores that occasionally had artworks. So I opened a gallery, and that was a big success. Everybody wrote about it. My first opening was packed with people. The interest was huge. But there was no merchandise, and no money. People didn’t have any money.
Q: How did you manage to bring these artworks into Germany?
A: That was kind of adventurous. A friend of mine had a trucking business, and for deliveries in town he had a small delivery truck with only canvas around it. He lent it to me, and it took three days to drive to Paris because the thing was so slow. When we got to Paris we went to Ileana, because she had promised me the paintings, and we rode away with these paintings on a rickety truck. She didn’t blink an eye. She just thought it was perfectly normal.
Q: Did she sell them or consign them to you?
A: She consigned them – I didn’t have any money to buy the paintings. She asked $10,000 for a Jasper Jones – I thought it was insane. She asked the same for a Lichtenstein. She had protective prices that nobody would pay, just for insurance purposes, and she actually didn’t want to sell any of the things. But she gave me some offset prints, and I sold them for 200 marks, and that’s how I made a little money out of it. But I didn’t sell any of the paintings. There were three Rauschenberg paintings, three Jasper Johns paintings, two or three Warhols, including Four Marilyns, and two Lichtensteins, one of which was I Know How You Must Feel, Brad.
Q: So you loaded them onto the truck and drove them back?
A: My brother was with me, so he was sleeping on an air mattress in the back of the truck. And then in the morning we drove back to Hamburg. It was a long trip, and we were accompanied by a girl, Florentine, who became the mother of Jacob [Pabst, today CEO of artnet]. She was in Paris with a family, learning French, and she lived in the same building, and she wanted to join us on the trip. She thought it was so exciting.
Q: Did you have trouble getting the art into the country?
A: It was difficult. We had to fill out endless papers. The only way we could make it look like it wasn’t merchandise was to say that I had painted it, and they commiserated with me, saying, “That’s very odd.” They were laughing that we thought this was art.
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1. Office buildings in Hamburg that were rebuilt after destruction in World War II, at the City Hall Market Square in 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images.
2.A man traverses Hamburg in the wake of World War II. Photo by dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images.
3. The young Hans Neuendorf, founder of artnet, and Joey Graham in London. Photo by Robert Graham.
4. Hans Neuendorf, 1995. Courtesy of Artnet Archival Material.
5. German refugees after the end of World War II in Europe pass through Hamburg during a snowstorm, dragging carts piled high with their belongings. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.