It’s Not About the Money, Says Manuela Alexejew

It’s Not About the Money, Says Manuela Alexejew

The Berlin-based collector discusses her new book, her first purchase, and why the art market back then was like “another world”
The Berlin-based collector discusses her new book, her first purchase, and why the art market back then was like “another world”
A woman sitting on a pallet of golden bars and a figurative sculpture, other artworks and speakers behind
Manuela Alexejew – (foreground) Alicja Kwade, KOHLE (T 1 Rekord), 2011; (far background); Gregor Hildebrandt, Nachts wenn wir nicht schlafen können, 2007. © Alicja Kwade, © Gregor Hildebrandt, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Photo: Thomas Kausch

The huge loft-style apartment Manuela Alexejew shares with her husband Carlos Brandl in Berlin is stuffed with art: a portrait by Otto Dix near the entrance, a wild yellow canvas by Katharina Grosse, a pallet of gold bars by Alicja Kwade. A Yayoi Kusama pumpkin sits on a coffee table in the living room. A little painting by Max Ernst hangs by the window; another wall is dominated by a black painting by Gregor Hildebrandt. George Condo in the kitchen, Gerhard Richter in the hallway, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in the bedroom. It’s impossible not to linger and stare at this vibrant, uncontained but nonetheless harmonious mesh of colours and styles.

Alexejew, a Berliner, studied animation and painting at the city’s art academy. But she dropped her plan to become an animator or graphic designer when a friend suggested she join her at PAN AM as a stewardess. Alexejew flew around the world, going to parties and meeting artists – and she met Brandl, an entrepreneur who was as obsessive as she was about art.

Her book – It’s Not About the Money – traces her journey with Brandl as they built an internationally renowned art collection, whose works are regularly loaned to exhibitions at top museums. Written together with the journalist Thomas Kausch, it is to be published shortly by Steidl in German. An English translation is in the works.

A wall with two artworks and a table with bottles and a lamp on top of it
A view of Manuela Alexejew's apartment – (left) George Condo, "woman", 1999; (right) William Copley, The Stud, 1985. © George Condo, © William Copley, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Photo: Trevor Good

When did you first start taking an interest in art?

I always wanted to go into painting: I studied animation and painting and it always inspired me. I can definitely paint nicely and well, but what does that mean? To be an artist you need a kind of inner strength. I didn’t really have confidence, because I always found other people better. I think that was a good thing, because then I got really immersed in other people’s art.

Room with artworks, sofas and other objects
A view of the living room. Photo: Andrea Ferrari

You met Carlos, an entrepreneur in the meat industry, in 1978, when you were at PAN AM

Woman and man surrounded by artworks, books, furniture and other objects
Manuela Alexejew with Carlos Brandl – (background left) Gerhard Richter, Untitled, 1983 (detail); (background right); Martha Jungwirth, Untitled, 2015 (detail). © Gerhard Richter, © Martha Jungwirth, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Photo: Trevor Good

The funny thing is that he was completely obsessed with art – it was a coincidence. I learnt a lot through my studies, but he is very talented. He just has an amazing eye. If you collect, you have to have something inside that shows you the way, otherwise you can forget it.

He invited me to a top auction in New York. I could fly first class to New York for $10 with my job. And that was my first brush with this passion for collecting and this world that was so beautiful and inspiring. I had always been passionate about art, but now I really had access to the top level.

How did your first art purchase – a nude drawing by the German Expressionist artist Conrad Felixmüller – come about?

I bought it from the concert master of the Deutsche Oper. He was mad about collecting. We went to see his apartment in Berlin. There was nothing on the walls, just everything stacked in piles – there was nowhere to tread.

I saw the Felixmüller. I found it so amazingly beautiful. It reminded me of my time at the academy, when we had to draw nudes. It was really hard to do. And I thought it was such a crazy composition – that is how it should be. I asked him if I could buy it. He offered it to me for DM 175. It’s hanging in the bedroom now.

An apartment filled with artworks, a dining table, chairs and other objects
A view of the dining area – (foreground) Allen Jones, The Whip, 1971. © Allen Jones, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Photo: Trevor Good
Book cover with "It's Not About the Money" written on it
The cover for It's Not About the Money, by Manuela Alexejew and Thomas Kausch. © Steidl Design

Why did you decide to write your book?

The book is the not the story of how we found art, but of how art found us. We belong to a generation that bought art because we were passionate about it. We never thought art would be worth millions.

We bought things we were obsessed with and worked out how we could pay for them. Back then, when we started, the prices were manageable – they were not fantastic, like today. It was another world.

LEAD IMAGE: Manuela Alexejew – (background) Michel Majerus, SPLASH BOMB, 2002 (detail). © Michel Majerus, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Photo: Trevor Good

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