est eng 2024/1 international special pages! See: Nils Ohlsen "Konrad Mägi and Die Brücke at the Baltic Sea – just a coincidence or a phenomenon?"


Why should good art be expensive? On the topic of the price of Estonian art as of the previous auction year

Heie Treier (1/2024)

Heie Marie Treier



Nathaniel Kahn's documentary "The Price of Everything" (2018) presents the extremes and paradoxes of the New York art auction market. The opening sentence of the film's trailer rings true: "Art and money have always gone hand in hand. It is very important for good art to be expensive – you only protect things that are valuable."

In the second half of the film, however, this point of view is disputed, as it shows, in a positive light, an elderly abstractionist from a generation of idealists, Larry Poons, calmly plying his trade in humble conditions, and whose paintings don't make waves at auctions.

So, looking back at the previous auction year that ended in December, what can we say about the state of art and money in Estonia and in the art world more widely?

When this quarterly magazine was first published in Estonia in 2000 (continuing the tradition of the Kunst almanac), it covered the new phenomena of the local art world, including art auctions. The first auctions were held during the period of the Estonian kroon (1992–2011), starting from 1997 when Haus Gallery opened. In the early days, auctions were held on-site, with 30–50 people gathered together, but these events remained relatively insular. The buyers were mainly interested in pre-World War II painting with an emphasis on the Pallas Art School, which was founded by the eponymous society in 1919 and which developed over 20 years into the Pallas art movement.

In the 1990s, treating art as an investment was still out of the question in the eyes of the majority of middle-aged and older artists and critics and was even perceived as a chilling kind of "blasphemy". All of this can be interpreted as the long-term influence of an idealist philosophy and mindset that was rooted in the aesthetics of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and followed from the occupation years of the 1980s – although perhaps not even the Estonians themselves would have admitted as much. In 2007, people were surprised at the auction record – 1,305,000 kroons – set by a painting by Johann Köler (1826–1899), which at the time seemed like science fiction.

Today, the number of art collectors has grown to the hundreds, including a number of prominent woman buyers. The auction market has intensified due to the activities of several galleries reaching close to maximum capacity. Auctions have also partially moved online, speeding up the whole process. The online edition of the newspaper Äripäev, founded in 1989, occasionally publishes articles about art as an "alternative class of assets" on par with other types of investments.

In the 1980s, when the pre-war Pallas paintings had no price (because they were literally priceless), the 1920s–1930s movement was almost the only possible research topic in the eyes of both the art researchers working at museums and the art history students at Tartu University. Sources originating from the interwar Republic of Estonia were more or less forbidden for political reasons and were kept in special library collections and archives under state control, paradoxically making researchers keener to work with them.

As soon as the state regime changed in 1991, and with the archives opening and market demand for Pallas paintings growing, the emerging generation of art researchers at the Estonian Academy of Arts and the University of Tartu lost all interest in researching the movement. This trend continues to this day. And since then, with a few exceptions, the study of Pallas art has largely progressed through the work of those scholars who still remember their research experience from the 1980s and even earlier.

The way in which the Pallas movement is discussed in art history has changed with the advent of feminist and post-colonial perspectives. The discussion has also been supplemented by a handful of exhibitions at Kumu Art Museum and Tartu Art Museum and the 5th volume of the "History of Estonian Art" (Eesti kunsti ajalugu) book series published in 2010, which covers the years 1900−1940.

The Konrad Mägi Foundation was established in 2018 as an unprecedented initiative in which a private financer lent support to the field of art history while the foundation it received financial support from the state, in this case, through the Ministry of Culture. Its purpose was: "Introducing and documenting the life, work and heritage of the most important painter in Estonian art history, Konrad Mägi, in Estonia and abroad."

As of 2023, all auction records have been set by paintings by Konrad Mägi (1878–1925), the founder and first director of the Pallas School and movement. In the spring of 2023, Konrad Mägi's "Capri motif" (Capri motiiv) was sold at an auction organised by Allee Gallery for the price of 473,000 euros, making it currently the most expensive painting in the history of Estonia.

However, Eduard Wiiralt (1898–1954), a graduate from the first year of the Pallas School, has an unprecedented reputation in printmaking. Reflecting the current demand for his work, there is supposedly an adage in the circle of collectors that states that an aspiring art collector is only a real art collector if they own a Wiiralt print. With the prices of Wiiralt's more expensive works exceeding the prices of many good paintings, the adage seems quite apt.

Turning to transatlantic news,, a New York-based online art brokerage company, lists the ten most expensive paintings sold in 2023. First place went to Pablo Picasso's "Woman with a Watch" (Femme à la montre, 1932), priced at 139.4 million dollars. Gustav Klimt came in second place, Claude Monet third and Jean-Michel Basquiat fourth. Next were: Francis Bacon, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Wassili Kandinsky and Henri Rousseau. All men. The youngest artist on the list is Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27.

Who is the most expensive living Estonian artist? Autumn 2023 answered this question – Miljard Kilk (born 1957), whose 1986 surrealist painting "Blind Faith" (Pime usk), with a starting price of 13,500 euros, was sold at the autumn auction of Allee Gallery for 86,100 euros. Since interest in the study of Estonian art of the 1980s has largely disappeared from Estonian art studies, we can ask rhetorically whether interest may now start to recover through the "back door" – i.e. through the art market.

2023 saw such an increase in the number of auctions that they started to be held, figuratively speaking, on every corner. This meant an increase in competition and aggressiveness, oversaturation, and pressure on prices, as well as increasing questions about business ethics.

Just as in the local art scene and local art education, the division of Northern and Southern Estonia is still clearly apparent. This is a value in a small country, as the commercial galleries and auction scenes of Northern and Southern Estonia also vary in terms of their mentalities. In Tallinn, Estonia's largest and oldest auction galleries, Haus and Vaal (founded in 1990), continue to operate steadily, with both maintaining their high and sober style. They have recently been joined by Allee (named Art Salon Allee from 2001 to 2020), Vernissage (opened 2000), and even more recently Artrovert, which opened in 2022 and mostly specialises in the sale of newer art.

There has also been a push to promote the sale of photographic art. The mere existence of Fotografiska Tallinn, founded in 2019, should draw the attention of the art audience to the artistic credentials of photography. Estonia's first photography fair took place in Tallinn back in 2010 in the atrium of the Rotermann Quarter. The next edition of Art Fair Foto Tallinn has already been announced and will take place in September 2024 at Kai Art Center.

Art collectors have also progressed to the next level and have started publishing their own catalogues or even opening their own private museums. This is where the characters of the art collectors are distinguished, with their choices of art often based on their profession or background, and as in the long run, collections help to construct the collector's biography and define their social status. However, cultural value amasses only when the works from these collections are included in exhibitions, not when they are seen only as investments.

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