Every art dealer remembers his first sale, the moment he discovered what it feels like to exchange a precious artwork for a handful of hard cash. Iwan Wirth made that discovery early. He was seven, and he’d teamed up with a cousin in his small Swiss town to create miniature knockoffs of Henry Moore sculptures. After making the reproductions out of clay, they set up an exhibit in their grandfather’s workshop, inviting everyone they knew and ultimately selling about 20 pieces.
And although the total revenue ($30) wasn’t all that remarkable by today’s standards, it did help Wirth pay for a new tennis racquet—and it taught him an important lesson. “My cousin, who was a much better artist than I was, didn’t sell anything, because he was never there,” Wirth recalls. “So you learn. You realize that no matter what you sell, you’ve got to be there.”
It’s a strategy that has worked well for Wirth, who today, at 39, still occasionally sells odd-looking clay sculptures, though now they’re likely to be by Paul McCarthy and worth $1 million or more. His gallery, Hauser & Wirth—with several large spaces in Zurich and London and a roster that includes Pipilotti Rist, Martin Creed, Louise Bourgeois, Guillermo Kuitca, Dan Graham and Roni Horn—recently opened an outpost on East 69th Street in New York. Some observers may doubt the wisdom of expanding at a time when so many galleries are scaling back or closing, but those who know Wirth see it as a typically forward-thinking move.
“For Iwan, it’s probably the perfect thing to do,” says Barry Rosen, who advises the estates of artists including Eva Hesse and Allan Kaprow, both also repped by Hauser & Wirth. “The gallery is spending money, but it can afford to.”
Wirth opened his first gallery in his hometown while still in his teens, selling Le Corbusier drawings and Miró prints, and in 1992 teamed with wealthy Swiss collector Ursula Hauser and her daughter Manuela (whom he married a few years later) to deal on the secondary market in Zurich. He soon signed Hauser & Wirth’s first contemporary artist, Rist, luring her away from Basel’s esteemed Stampa gallery by asking her what she needed most—a full-time assistant, she told him—and getting it for her. With frequent trips to L.A. and New York, he began to build an impressive list of international talent, recruiting such artists as McCarthy and Jason Rhoades despite the limitations of his Zurich base.
“No artist really needs to show in Switzerland,” Wirth admits. “So if we wanted to succeed on the periphery, we had to invent different schemes and use different tools to get attention.”
Along with a well-trained eye, those tools included deep pockets and plenty of patience. By betting early on artists whose commercial potential was far from obvious and by offering elaborate exhibitions and other support that the artists couldn’t have afforded without him, Wirth simultaneously raised their profiles and developed strong bonds with them that paid off later. (No artist has ever defected from the gallery.) In 2002, when he was on the verge of leasing his main London location, a historic bank building on Piccadilly, he flew McCarthy, Rist, Rhoades and others into town just to make sure they all approved of the space, since they’d be showing their art there.