‘Eagles’ eyes for excellence’: the shared vision of Thomas and Doris Ammann
The Swiss siblings’ collection of post-war and contemporary art is one of the finest ever to come to market
From humble beginnings in a fishing village in north-east Switzerland, Thomas and Doris Ammann went on to become two of the most respected art dealers in the world. Working on behalf of a loyal core of international clients, one or other of the siblings was a fixture at major art events for decades.
Parallel to their activity as dealers, but entirely separate from it, the Ammanns also built up a spectacular collection of their own, of post-war and contemporary art. It includes some of the finest works by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden and Sigmar Polke — as well as more hidden talents, such as Francesco Clemente, Ann Craven and Klaudia Schifferle.
When Thomas passed away in 1993, one obituary said that the Ammanns’ body of works by Warhol, Ryman and Clemente alone could fill a museum. Doris continued to make first-rate acquisitions until her own passing in 2021.
Courtesy of the recently established Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation, highlights from the collection are being offered at Christie’s, starting with two sales in New York in May.
All proceeds from the sales will go towards charities supported by the Foundation, most of them aimed at improving the health, welfare and education of underprivileged children. This promises to be the highest-grossing set of philanthropic auctions since the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller was sold at Christie’s in 2018.
‘Both siblings trusted their artistic judgment over generally accepted opinion’, says Georg Frei, the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation’s chairman. ‘They collected with the eye, not the ear — and the results are exceptional.
Doris and Thomas Ammann were born in the village of Ermatingen, on Lake Constance, in 1944 and 1950 respectively. She was the second, and he the youngest, of four children.
Their parents ran a transport business and had zero love of art. Thomas soon came to develop one, though, and by the age of eight was habitually copying pictures by Van Gogh.
He showed the first signs of a collecting instinct in his mid-teens. He had grown fascinated by folk painting from the Appenzell region. Especially the small works by itinerant artists, which 19th-century farmers used to take with them to their huts in the mountain pastures where they spent summer.
‘They collected with the eye, not the ear — and the results are exceptional’ —Georg Frei
Thomas began purchasing these keenly from contemporary farmers who, for the most part, had inherited the works and felt little attachment to them. He showed more interest in this than he did in going to school, and aged 18 it landed him his big break: a job at the esteemed dealer Bruno Bischofberger’s gallery in Zurich.
Bischofberger had two spaces, one dedicated to folk art, the other to contemporary art — and though Thomas was initially employed in the former, before long he moved to the latter.
He was given considerable responsibility, regularly travelling to New York, where he met several art-world luminaries, most notably Andy Warhol, who became a friend for life.
As for Doris, she attended business school before interning at a few first-class hotels (including Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz). She then took a job as an administrator at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The skills she developed early — in business, organisation, and client engagement — would serve her well in later life.
In the mid-1970s, she was asked by Thomas (who had recently, and very amicably, parted ways with Bischofberger) to join him at a gallery he was founding in Zurich. ‘They made an excellent team,’ says Frei. ‘Thomas was very much a front-of-house figure, while Doris worked more on the accounting and administrative side of things.’
In 1977, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG gallery opened, in the pretty hillside setting of Zürichberg. It specialised in Impressionist and Modern art, made between 1870 and 1960.
Working with private collectors and museums worldwide, the Ammanns brokered all manner of important acquisitions — including that of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989.
Alongside their activity as dealers, the siblings began collecting in earnest too. Initially, this was done in partnership with Thomas’s childhood friend and financial backer, Alexander Schmidheiny.
The first art they bought was by the American abstract masters, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. The latter is represented in the upcoming sales by four works, including For Otis (Back Series), his tribute to Otis Redding, painted immediately after Marden had heard of the music legend’s death in a plane crash in 1967.
To maintain clear lines between what they did as dealers and what they did as collectors, Thomas and Doris only collected art made after 1960.
As the former explained, ‘you can't collect what you want to sell — because then either you sell all the good things, which is no fun; or you keep all the good things, which bankrupts you’. (Cy Twombly’s 1955 painting, (Untitled (New York City)), a highlight of the upcoming sales, was a rare exception to the siblings’ post-1960 rule.)
Another benefit of not dealing in contemporary work, only collecting it, was that the Ammanns could build a personal relationship with artists. When visiting the studio of the likes of Eric Fischl, Philip Taaffe and Francesco Clemente in New York — something he did frequently and keenly — Thomas didn’t just make purchases but friendships.
He invested in careers rather than just works. ‘It doesn’t interest me to collect one work by one artist, one work by another’, Thomas said. ‘The people you think are important, you buy in depth. One Robert Ryman is wonderful, but when you buy five…’
In many cases — such as those of Clemente and Taaffe, as well as Ross Bleckner — Thomas supported artists from early in their careers and actually helped launch them on the international stage. Doris did the same more recently with the likes of Ann Craven (a painter renowned for her pictures of birds) and the Swiss conceptual artist, Urs Fischer.
As Thomas put it in 1988, ‘what really interests me about collecting is seeing what's happening today. I like to buy young people, and I buy them very early’.
Someone whose art the Ammanns certainly bought in depth was Warhol. The May sales feature seven of his works, executed across all three decades of his career (1960s, 1970s and 1980s).
Probably the most famous is Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964), a silkscreen portrait of Marilyn Monroe adapted from a decade-old, black-and-white, promotional photograph for her film Niagara. Warhol transformed the late actress into a Pop Art icon, by giving her a bubblegum-pink face, ruby lips and yellow hair — as well as sage-blue eye shadow, to match the colour of the background.
Warhol’s friendship with Thomas extended to letting him use the second floor of his house on 66th Street in the early 1980s, when the latter needed an office space in New York. The American also entrusted the Swiss with the task of producing his catalogue raisonné (a task so momentous that, 35 years after Warhol’s death, it is still incomplete, with only five of its seven or more volumes now published).
Through the 1980s, Thomas garnered a reputation as one of the 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’.
The good times were interrupted, however, in 1992, when Alexander Schmidheiny died. The art collection was duly split in two: Alexander’s family being bequeathed one half (which today forms the core of the vaunted Daros Collection) and the Ammanns keeping the other half.
Thomas’s own passing a year later, aged 43, was met with shock. Typical of the many, posthumous tributes to him was that by the museum director, Jean-Christophe Ammann (no relation), who wrote in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that ‘the death of Thomas Ammann is irreparable. He leaves a hole which, in this generation, cannot again be filled’.
Jean-Christophe had been the director of Kunsthalle Basel in 1985, when it hosted From Twombly to Clemente, an exhibition consisting of 100 works from the Ammanns’ collection.
Interestingly, at the time of the show, no mention was made whatsoever of who the art belonged to. Thomas and Doris were synonymous with privacy and complete discretion, both when it came to dealing and to collecting.
Indeed, on assuming sole control of Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG after her brother’s death, Doris was quoted in Art & Auction magazine as saying ‘I intend to carry on… in memory of Thomas, exactly as before… He was an extremely discrete man [and] I would like to adhere to this’.
At the gallery, Doris’s policy was broadly one of continuity, though one crucial innovation — on the advice of her friend and fellow Swiss dealer, Ernst Beyeler — was the decision to begin participation in Art Basel. Today it is the biggest art fair on the planet, but back in the mid-1990s it was still relatively low-key. Showing there ended up allowing the gallery to markedly expand its sphere of influence.
When it came to collecting, Doris didn’t deviate much from the model of old either — apart from introducing slightly more international names (where in Thomas’s day the focus had perhaps been more on US-based artists). She ensured that there was a continued freshness to the collection too, acquiring numerous works made in the 21st century.
How best to categorise the collection as a whole? It’s worth mentioning the fair share of Appropriation art. Among the examples of it coming to auction is Mike Bidlo’s 1987 painting, Not Picasso (Bather with Beachball, 1932), one of the US artist’s feted replicas of a work by Picasso — in this case, Bather with Beach Ball, from the Museum of Modern Art collection.
Frei, however, says we should be wary of drawing conclusions about the collection — and as a long-time partner at Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG (a role he now twins with that at the Foundation), he should know. ‘Thomas and Doris never liked to talk about their collecting, or to say that a painting was beautiful for this reason or that reason’.
In truth, the collection is stunning in its variety. The Ammanns didn’t acquire works because of a preference for a particular style, movement or price-point; they acquired works according to how much they believed in an artist.
‘What I suppose we might say,’ adds Frei, ‘is that their collection was like a river — with one bank more built up than the other. That is, a combination of big names and less-established ones… They had eagles’ eyes for excellence’.
Thomas and Doris both had a history of giving to charitable causes. The former organised several fundraising events in support of AIDS charities — including a gala dinner at the opening of the Art Basel fair of 1991, where Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn were among 500 guests.
Doris gave long-term philanthropic support to bodies such as the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation.
The two Christie’s sales will take place just over a year after her death, in March 2021 aged 76. Via the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation, all proceeds will go to charitable organisations. Most of these are dedicated to saving or improving the lives of underprivileged children.
‘[Doris] wanted the family’s legacy to really help other people’ —Georg Frei
The Foundation looks to assist research into cancers and immunological disorders among young people, for example, and to provide bursaries and scholarships at places of education.
Sick children worldwide without access to the healthcare they need will also be flown to Switzerland with their families, and given treatment in a Zurich hospital.
‘The Ammann art collection is so strong’, says Frei, ‘that one obvious option would have been for Doris to leave behind a museum. But she never wanted that. She wanted the family’s legacy to help other people’.