The Berlin-based auction house Grisebach is a relative newcomer to the field. The company was founded in 1986, when a group of five art dealers, including Bernd Schultz, joined forces to start an auction house. Twelve years later, in 1998, the firm held its first photography sale, and since 2007, the photography department has been headed by Franziska Schmidt. The first sale Schmidt organized that year got her off to a good start: it included Dieter Blum’s 1998 Rauchender Mann (Smoking Man), which brought €96,390, the highest price for a photograph at auction in Germany at that point.
Since then, Schmidt has steadily assembled sales of notable, sometimes lesser-known works, including Werner Rhode’s Dark Figure, 1930, which set a record for a vintage photograph in Germany when it sold in June of 2015 for €187,500. That sale was the firm’s most successful photography auction to date, bringing a total of €906,000.
Schmidt has been interested in photography since her childhood in Halle in Saxony-Anhalt. She had a little camera when she was eight years old, and she still has some of the pictures she took as a child. “It was really something fun for me,” she recalls. “I also remember how fascinating it was to watch the whole process in the darkroom.” But her real introduction to photography came when she was a junior at the Martin Luther University in Halle, and she stumbled, accidentally, into the photography department of the Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg looking for an internship. “The curator was very open minded, and the medium was fascinating to me,” she says. “At university, there wasn’t much opportunity to learn about photography, so everything was completely new to me.”
Schmidt went on to a prestigious fellowship with the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, which involved stints in the photography departments at three different institutions – the Folkwang Museum in Essen, the State Art Collections in Dresden, and the Stadtmuseum in Munich. She joined Grisebach after working at the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig and the influential Gallery Berinson in Berlin, which specialized in photography from the 1920s and ‘30s. “It was a very good education and an introduction to the photography market,” she says.
Schmidt says she has the sense that more and more German and international collectors are gravitating toward photography. “We have many new clients each season,” she says, “and they ask more questions, they really look carefully, they want quality pieces.” Pieces like those in Schmidt’s November 25 sale, which will feature, among other lots, a Camera Work portfolio of 15 prints by Leni Riefenstahl; a 1913 portrait by Stanislaw Witkiewicz of his wife, the artist Jadwiga Janczewska; and a 1925 portrait of artist Käthe Kollwitz by Hugo Erfurth.
To assemble the biannual sales, Schmidt looks at a tremendous number of photographs, but it’s a part of her job that she enjoys. “We see so much, and you have to work with so many different kinds of things, from cataloguing to research to meeting people,” she says. “You learn a lot about why people collect, how they think, and how they look. “