‘One of the most respected dealers of her generation’ — a tribute to Doris Ammann
Friends and colleagues remember the esteemed Swiss gallerist, a familiar figure in salerooms around the world, who was known for her ‘elegance, knowledge, friendliness and discretion’
Doris Ammann photographed with Brice Marden, Elements I, 1981-1982 (detail)
On 21 March, the eminent Swiss art dealer Doris Ammann passed away, aged 76. She was head of Zurich’s Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG gallery, which shows major artists including Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.
Doris Ammann was much more than that, however. She was a constant presence at auctions around the world, making Seat 7 in the front row of Christie’s main New York saleroom in Rockefeller Plaza her own.
‘We’re talking about the loss of one of the most respected dealers of her generation,’ says Georg Frei, her partner at Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG. ‘She was a mix of elegance, knowledge, friendliness and discretion — and her loyal core of international clients appreciated that.’
Born in 1944 in the village of Ermatingen in north-east Switzerland, Ammann was one of four siblings. She studied at business school before interning at a handful of first-class hotels (including Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz) and working at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
The skills she developed early, in business and client engagement, would serve Ammann well in later life — as would a fluent command of several languages.
Her parents weren’t much interested in art, but her younger brother Thomas worked at Bruno Bischofberger’s gallery in Zurich from the age of 18. In 1977 he and Doris opened Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG together in the picturesque hillside setting of Zürichberg.
‘They were an excellent team,’ says Frei, who started work with the Ammanns in the late 1980s. ‘Thomas was very much a front-of-house figure, while Doris worked more on the accounting and administrative side of things.’
Thomas swiftly developed a reputation as one of the boldest, snazziest figures in the art world. A Vanity Fair profile of him in 1988 was headlined ‘Ammann of Style’ and mentioned that he ‘skis with Valentino, dines with Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor… and lives on Concorde’.
Working with private collectors and museums, the gallery dealt in top-tier works made mostly between 1870 and 1960, from the Impressionists to early Warhol. One of many important acquisitions it brokered was that of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989.
Four years later, however, Thomas passed away, aged just 43.
‘That was a shock,’ says Frei, ‘and suddenly Doris had to step from the background to the foreground [assuming sole control of the gallery]. In the beginning, there was little trust in her, because nobody knew her capabilities as a dealer.
‘Many people saw her simply as Thomas’s sister. To her credit, Doris stayed strong and always believed in herself — and in her direction for the gallery.’
Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, with works from the exhibition Cy Twombly, Anatomy out of Light and the Sea in 2017. Photo: Geyst AG, Zurich Switzerland
Doris’s policy was broadly one of continuity, but she also changed with the times. She kept a focus on art from the same period and shared her brother’s insistence on quality over quantity.
Critically admired exhibitions continued, devoted to the likes of Picasso, the Italian Futurists and — in 2017, marking the gallery’s 40th anniversary — Cy Twombly. Shows also continued to be accompanied by impressive, fully illustrated catalogues.
One crucial innovation, however, was to begin participation in Art Basel. It is now the biggest art fair on the planet, but back in the early 1990s it was still relatively low-key.
‘Doris managed to maintain the [European and North American] clients from Thomas’s time,’ says Frei, ‘but with the exposure at Art Basel she developed important new ones from other parts of the world, such as Japan, China and South America.’
One of her clients, who also counted himself a friend, was the fashion designer Valentino. ‘She was delicious company and a smart conversationalist,’ he says — someone who ‘never lost her smile or sense of humour’, whatever was happening in the art world.
‘All clients felt easy dealing with her, and friends could confide in her about anything,’ adds the designer. ‘I will miss her.’
Across three decades, Ammann was a fixture at major auctions. She relied on an impeccable eye — some called it a sixth sense — for the works she thought her clients would like.
‘She was a savvy buyer,’ says Jussi Pylkkänen, global president at Christie’s, who stood across the rostrum from Ammann at countless auctions.
‘She’d never go in too early, much preferring to make her bids late… I’d always give her the final look before hammering down on a work I thought she might be interested in.’
In Christie’s sale of the collection of the late travel magnate Barney A. Ebsworth, in 2018, Ammann bought two masterpieces of American modernism: Jackson Pollock’s Composition with Red Strokes (1950) and Alexander Calder’s sculpture, Hen (1943).
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Many of her career highlights, however, have never been made public. ‘She was a very discreet figure,’ notes Pylkkänen. An exception was her success in prising away Willem de Kooning’s Woman III from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art for a client in 1994.
The canvas is one of six from the painter’s landmark, first ‘Woman’ series (and the only one today in private hands). Ammann ended up exchanging it with Iranian delegates — literally on the tarmac of Vienna airport — for a section of a precious 16th-century Persian manuscript.
‘When Thomas was alive, I never saw a sister more in awe of her brother than Doris was of him,’ Frei says. ‘In the years since, many people came to hold her in a similar regard.’