Art Books As Collectibles: Interview with Benedikt Taschen

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Thirty-five exceptional years in the publishing industry, with one of his books being sold every two seconds worldwide, celebrity publisher Benedikt Taschen is the person who has mastered the art of art-publishing, and at the same time liberalised the art-book business and market.

Text: Yoko Choy
Photo: TASCHEN.COM

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Taschen’s business empire started in 1983 with the purchase of 40,000 remaindered copies of a book on René Magritte, which he resold at a healthy profit with a $6.99 price tag ¬– an unimaginable act in the elite art book market at time, and surprisingly mostly in his native Germany, even though the book was in English – proving that art is literally a universal language. In 1999, he published a limited edition of 10,000 copies of a massive tome on Helmut Newton – complete with a stainless steel table by Philippe Starck for displaying it – priced at $1,500. The book sold out instantly and is now a collector’s item at over $20,000 on the market (if you can find one).  Since then, TASCHEN has become famed for art books that range from bargain editions to much sought-after beautiful collectibles.

 

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Each year, TASCHEN exhibits its new collaborations with world-renowned artists at Hong Kong’s Art Basel show, and the new Editions’ catalogue has just been published. Yoko Choy talks to the man behind the company about his life and work.

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Yoko Choy: TASCHEN is a very special publisher. It has a lot of different titles and styles in art and design and history, but at the same time it is a very systematic and strategic business model because you publish collectible editions, trade editions and basic editions at the same time, covering the whole market. How did you start?

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Benedikt Taschen: Well, it evolved almost naturally over time. When we began, as you might know, we had only the very inexpensive books – at that time 9.95, German marks or dollars. That was our start, which at that time was quite successful; then we published a few other lines, which were a little bit more expensive, at $30 and $50, and as you know, we did this very big Helmut Newton book, and this allowed us to fill all the different price points in the middle – $200 and whatever. But the idea is basically that once we make a book, the big books are made more or less without a fixed budget. We cover all costs that we think are necessary for the production, but later we can still do the book in smaller sizes. So that allows us to have first the collectors; in the best case, they are happy with the book because it’s sold out, and the price is going up on the secondary market, and, on the other hand, it allows us to democratise in a way – to use all the editorial and the design work we had spent the money on to make it into a much smaller book at a more affordable price. So we just trim the books over the years, and they get smaller and smaller and smaller. That somehow worked well and everyone can enjoy the same book but at different price levels. But it’s the same content, and that is the important issue.

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YC: The readers buying the small versions will be happy because for a small amount of money they get the best content – but will it affect the collectors regarding how they see the editions?

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YC: No, I don’t think so, at all. We monitor this quite closely; we very rarely, if ever, have complaints about it. We communicate this openly from the beginning that the big version needs the small one and vice versa. Without the one, you couldn’t do the other one. But it is important that we keep the base happy, as well – we give the same amount of time and precision to make a book for $10 as for $4,000. So there is no real difference in the treatment.

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YC: How big is your collectors’ base? How do you manage their expectations?
BT: This is at different levels, but I would say around 10,000 people worldwide. We just try to evolve and see whether we can make it better. We constantly change. A lot of details can go wrong with a book, and once it’s manifested and printed, you can’t avoid it anymore, so we just try to make it right.

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YC: Do you sometimes get a special request from collectors to do book projects?
BT: From time to time, but some collectors like all kinds of stuff we did a long time ago, like old catalogues or whatever and they collect all this stuff, funnily enough.

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YC: Do you keep everything you have ever published?
BT: No, unfortunately not, because we have different editions, and I stopped doing it. You need a lot of space; not that I don’t have space but we would really need somebody to take care of this full-time. Because every day you get a couple of new books, new editions and we just would not have the space to manage this. I have one of the collectors’ editions for each of my children – they don’t know about it (laughter). But I haven’t given it to them yet.

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YC: How is the Chinese market to you?
BT: It’s a growing market for us, but we can expect much more in the future, and we know some people collect books there; there are a broad number of people who are into it, in Hong Kong, and in mainland China, and in Taiwan and that is exciting, and I guess this will have a great future.

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YC: Are cultural differences an issue?
BT: Absolutely. For instance, we had a big book edition of the Rolling Stones in Hong Kong, and we sold, like nothing – one or two books – which is very unusual, and the reason is: people just don’t really know the Rolling Stones. So, there are substantial differences between the markets, but there is common sense and a common background that is the same.

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YC: How do you work with different artists on the collector’s editions?
BT: The first one was with the German artist Baselitz. Then we did others with Jeff Koons, Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, so these were probably the first five we did. It’s usually no problem at all. It’s a free decision – they’re not forced to work with us. It’s amicable, and if both sides want to do it, they know what to expect from us and I know what to expect from the artist because we know what they did in their life. So our goal is to make them look as good as it gets.

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YC: Do you like all the artists you work with?
BT: Well, if I did, it would be a pleasure.

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YC: What have been your biggest obstacles throughout these 30-something years?
BT: The biggest obstacle is how to stay in business. Because it is always evolving and changing. Once you are successful, you might stay successful for another few years, but there is no guarantee of anything.

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YC: For Chinese collectors who are considering collecting books, what would be your advice?
BT: To start right away! That’s my advice. It will add something very important in life because it is a steady source of inspiration. So I think they should not hesitate and should go on the internet or to some stores and start getting into it.

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YC: You once said that what you’re producing can never be art. What is art to you?
BT: Art is very rare; that is the magic of it. Me, I’m not an artist and in the house we have artisans who know how to produce books. We are more the promoter or manager of the artist. We just try to make them look good.

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YC: Maybe you’re a bit too humble?
BT: No. But because a book is very complex to make – the production is a long chain, and it is not easy to develop a product that is special.

YC: Do you only collect art from the artists you work with? Or you have a completely different focus?
BT: There are a lot of artists I collect about whom we’ve made books, but others as well; there are quite some artists who are a similar generation to me, and I’ve been able to collect them early on and follow their careers.

YC: So will there be a book about yourself?
BT: Ah, I don’t think so.

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Currently based in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, Yoko Choy is a highly regarded communications consultant as well as a multilingual writer and editor, who specialises in the fields of contemporary art, design and lifestyle. Her consultancy work has covered various fairs, brands and creatives, including representing Mario Testino in Asia, advising Beijing Design Week on its global communications, working on the Art Basel Hong Kong inaugural edition. Choy’s editorial work has been published in more than 20 international titles, including Hong Kong Economic Journal, Wallpaper* and the Louis Vuitton City Guide collection. Follow her on Instagram @missyoko

 

 
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