August 11, 2018
At one time a collector in need of a large sum of money sold Thomas Ammann, the Zurich-based art dealer, a substantial portfolio of art works: a Picasso, multiple Klines, Mirós, Rauschenbergs, and Twomblys and a particularly special Jasper Johns.
A year later at dinner with Thomas, this then-well-known collector asked him how he had fared with the purchases. Had he sold them? Had he made a nice profit? Was he happy?
“Wonderfully,” Thomas replied, and thanked the collector for the opportunity.
“What did you do with the Johns?” the collector then asked. Johns had dramatically increased in value that year.
“I saved it for you as I knew how much you loved the painting,” Thomas replied.
The collector, again cash rich and now, happy as could be, responded. “Okay, whatever the price, thank you, and I’ll buy it back.”
Said Ammann, “My money cost me 6 percent. The painting will be delivered back to you tomorrow. Please pay me my cost plus 6%.” And with that, he gave away close to a million dollars out of friendship.
I was the collector.
A good soul, Thomas. Early this summer, leafing through the catalog of Ammann’s Zurich Gallery’s 1987 exhibit of selected works from my collection, I was struck by the contrast between how art was dealt with then and what art dealers have to be today. Thomas epitomized knowledge, taste, elegant manners and thoughtfulness; today’s bar is set not much higher than the street peddler.
We forget our friends too quickly.
Ammann, en route to becoming the most revered dealer of impressionist, modern and contemporary art in history, passed away in 1993 at the age of 43. He’d had a brief but brilliant career. At the tender age of 18, it began with the contemporary art dealer Bruno Bischofberger. Eight years later, Thomas struck out on his own with the backing of the Schmidheiny fortune. Shortly, he became the dealer to the most important collections in the world, from Niarchos to Lauder, buying and selling works from Van Gogh through Warhol. A master of his trade with taste and a brilliant eye, his talent for dealing was unsurpassed in the 20th century.
Thomas was a practical chap. No warehouse visits for his clients. Until he bought his New York apartment he had the good sense to show art for sale at Andy Warhol’s house, my apartment and the homes of other, more important collectors. After all, why not surround the presentation of beautiful objects with other beautiful objects.
Art dealers often bemoan the paucity of important works for sale. Not Thomas. Dealers and collectors vied for his attention. For collectors like Ernst Beyeler, dealers like Mary Boone, and artists, living and dead, from Picasso to Ross Bleckner, Thomas was the chosen purveyor of all that was excellent, the go-to dealer of his time.
One night in the eighties Thomas, my then wife and a group of party folks visited La Escuelita, a Latin American drag nightclub south of Times Square. At about three in the morning, we dropped Thomas off at his hotel. Eleven the next morning, I got a call.
Thomas, who never discussed his love life with his friends, was on the phone: “When I left you I was restless and went to Boy Bar”—a Lower East Side pickup joint popular on the gay scene. “I think I have met the love of my life, a Greek boy studying in the U.S.,” he said. His name was George Kontouris and he and Thomas were together until Thomas’ death in 1993. George died shortly after that.
Like their love affair, Thomas Ammann’s life was too short and too little is said, too little remembered of my friend.
Part of that’s because he was so intensely private. He had a social façade—he was ubiquitous, always with the right people—but the fact of the matter is none of them really knew him. His preferences have, I fear, damaged his legacy.
Outwardly lacking passion, but inwardly, quite the opposite, he valued beauty and gentility along with the profit motive. We could use more of his kind today.