In Good Hands
After 35 years in the art world, Achim Moeller remains passionate about art dealing
Achim Moeller is a disciple of modern art. Ask him about painters or paintings, collectors or collections, and he will happily give a history of both, filled with the sort of detail and warmth that only a life in art can conjure. Luckily, he’s found the right niche as a successful art dealer on NewYork’s Upper East Side.When he’s not greeting old and new clients at art fairs around the world, Moeller calls a space here at 36 East 64th Street home. It’s here (among swaths of paintings and art-related documents) that he lives the life of a true art aficionado—consulting, appraising, and dealing.
As a young man in Switzerland, Moeller wanted to become an art historian or architect—much to the surprise of his father, who had hoped he would take over the family business. Father and son agreed, however, that he might begin by working at an auction house, where his interest in art and innate acumen for business could be combined.
And so away he went to work for the auction house Lempertz in Cologne, Germany in 1965 at age 22.After 18 months, Lempertz sent him to New York for a sale and he immediately fell in love with the city. He soon began working in the library of Wildenstein and Co. and, in 1968, joined the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery. “It was then the most successful gallery of mod- ern art in the world,” Moeller reminisces. It was at Marlborough-Gerson that Moeller first began his affiliation with the estate of Lyonel Feininger, the artist with whom Moeller is most closely identified.
After leaving New York to start his own gallery in London in 1972, he returned to the Big Apple 12 years later and opened a gallery in a historic carriage house on East 73rd Street. Last year, he and his French wife Colette moved to a townhouse on East 64th Street where his staff of seven now has offices and from which he oversees the archives of Lyonel Feininger and Mark Tobey.
“Lyonel Feininger was a friend of Mark Tobey,” the art connoisseur explains, standing in his library.“One day, while I was visiting a member of the Feininger family, I saw Aerial City (1950) by Mark Tobey, which I actually have here [in the gallery]. Not long after, I had a meeting with Paul Cummings, a freelance art historian and one-time curator at the Whitney, who had worked on Tobey for more than 20 years. He told me of the extensive correspondence between Feininger and Tobey, which I later edited.”
Today Moeller is perhaps best known as a leading authority on Feininger, whose catalogue raisonné he continues to write. Feininger’s work was recently in the spotlight when one of his paintings, Jesuiten III (1915), sold for $23,280,000, setting a new record for the artist. The final sale amount garnered three times the pre-auction estimated price.“I am happy to see that Feininger has finally been given the recognition he deserves—it has been a long time coming,” declares Moeller.
Though scholarly research is closest to Moeller’s heart, client relations are the backbone of his business. One of his best-known clients is John C. Whitehead, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, former deputy secretary of state and, until recently, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Project.“Okay,I admit it. John Whitehead is my hero,” Mr. Moeller smiles, as he begins to explain how this rare relationship between collector and dealer came about. “One day, John came in from the rain and into my London gallery. To pass the time until the storm waned, I talked to John about art, and showed him, among others, works by Matisse, Bonnard, and Braque. A week later, I received a telegram confirming the purchase of the latter picture.” The interaction was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted more than 25 years and started a collection that now includes first-rate works by Modigliani, Morisot, Caillebotte, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Picasso, Maillol, Degas, Monet, Manet, and Matisse, to name a few.
Returning to his favorite subject of scholarship and the art market, Moeller asserts that his reputation and continued success rests on his in-depth knowledge of collectors and their collections.“The secret of success in this business is to have integrity, a profound knowledge of art, and an ongoing commitment to building client relations,” he declares, gesturing to his library and files lining the walls, the fruits and souvenirs of a life’s work.