The Art of Après-Ski

St. Moritz, the storied Swiss Alpine playground, has a brand-new game.

It’s a perfect January afternoon in St. Moritz: fur-coat cold, with crystalline sunlight washing across the valley and surrounding peaks. Ideal conditions for one of those only–in–St. Moritz events—the Polo World Cup on Snow. Sponsored by Cartier, this prestigious competition features top players from around the globe, including renowned Argentine Eduardo Novillo Astrada, playing for Brioni, the Italian clothier making its debut at the tournament. Also fielding teams are Cartier, Bank Hofmann, and Maybach, which has parked two of its late-model cars next to the VIP tent. Inside, the crowds gather between matches to warm up and feast on catered delicacies. Accents range from British to German to Russian, but the dress code is uniform: chic meets sporty. St. Moritz is one of the few places where it’s acceptable to wear thick-lugged hiking boots with a Savile Row suit or, for women, moon boots with a floor-length fur.

Ever since the English invented the Alpine sports holiday in the 19th century, this has been a destination for the very wealthy to come ski, socialize, and, at least in more recent times, shop. In and around the Via Serlas, you will find boutiques for Bulgari, Brioni, Louis Vuitton, Zegna. But a new category of elite shopping has also arrived: These days St. Moritz is a hot spot for high-end art.

It started seven years ago, when Karsten Greve, a major dealer who already had galleries in Cologne, Paris, and Milan, converted a post office building opposite Glattfelder, the caviar emporium, into a three-story outpost. "I had been coming to St. Moritz forever, but I started running into so many clients that it began to feel like business," he says, surrounded by an exhibition of early-sixties paintings by Cy Twombly. "It made sense to open here."

His colleagues didn’t lag far behind. Counting two that just opened, there are now a half-dozen galleries in St. Moritz and nearby villages showing top-caliber modern and contemporary art. Best known are the blue-chip Greve and Galerie Gmurzynska, which has locations in Zurich and Zug, Switzerland, as well. The list also includes Galerie von Bartha of Basel, Monica De Cardenas of Milan, Salis & Vertes of Salzburg, and Galerie Tschudi, which operates half the year in Glarus, Switzerland. All sell works priced in the six and seven figures and exhibit at important fairs such as Art Basel and tefaf Maastricht.

Of course, the art trade was hardly unknown in St. Moritz before Greve opened. There was a fairly well-established tradition of dealers putting up shows in hotels for a week or two during peak season—but these, for the most part, weren’t leading market players. And there have always been dealers who spent time here doing casual business with clients on holiday. Zurich dealer Bruno Bischofberger, a native of the region, practically invented the notion of art buying as an après-ski activity. Clients still drop in at his chalet underneath the Suvretta lift, which houses his world-class holdings of modern and contemporary art, Italian furniture, and Scandinavian glass. During the eighties Bischofberger built a studio on the property and invited artists such as Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat to come and work.

Likewise, legendary Swiss dealers Ernst Beyeler of Basel and the late Thomas Ammann of Zurich long wintered in St. Moritz. They’d "bump into" clients on the slopes and in hotel bars and initiate deals that were consummated once everyone was back home.

It’s another thing entirely, however, to rent prime retail space year-round and allocate costly inventory to exhibitions. "People used to think this was just a place to set up shop temporarily," says Greve, an athletic sixtysomething Berlin native with steel-blue eyes, a flowing white beard, and a fondness for silk ascots. "During high season it’s almost like an art fair here because we see so many collectors. In the last two afternoons alone, a dozen extremely good clients—from Belgium, France, England—came in. But some of the best collectors don’t leave their chalets in high season, so it helps to have a presence here beyond that."

In 2003 Galerie Gmurzynska, which specializes in modern masters from Picasso to Malevich to Yves Klein, opened a second-floor gallery across from the famous Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. The raw industrial space contrasts sharply with the elegant Chanel and Tod’s boutiques below. "We kept it as a loft because we wanted to create the surprise of showing important works on concrete walls," explains co-owner Mathias Rastorfer, dressed in jeans and a check shirt under his sport coat, his cheeks ruddy from the morning’s ski runs. "We didn’t want the typical St. Moritz place, with wood paneling and marble floors. For us, the combination of great master paintings and rough space has worked very well." Indeed, Rastorfer reports that in the heaviest part of the day—after the lifts close, before cocktails—he’s had up to 20 potential buyers in the gallery at once.

It helps that Gmurzynska has a tight relationship with Badrutt’s, which owns the gallery’s building. The hotel lodges Gmurzynska’s owners and hosts occasional gallery events, such as the 2003 performance of an avant-garde Yves Klein symphony. The concierge and barmen also frequently refer guests to the gallery.

Badrutt’s lobby bar, a sort of de facto antechamber for many dealers, is one of St. Moritz’s prime gathering points. Scan the crowd on a busy winter weekend and you might spot Art Basel director Samuel Keller drinking bull shots (vodka, beef bouillon, lemon, and Worcestershire) with Zurich dealer Doris Ammann and Vienna arts patron Francesca von Habsburg. Strolling around town you might bump into Milan fashion moguls Miuccia Prada or Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gab-bana or American collectors Eli Broad and Adam Lindemann. Major museum figures—among them Kasper König, director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens—turn up as well.

This scene has attracted, not surprisingly, a growing number of wealthy Russians. Their presence was evident at the last round of annual jewelry auctions that Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold here in February, right after the White Turf races—where one can watch Thoroughbred horses and reindeer alike sprint- ing through the snow. Russian buyers accounted for a quarter of the sales. And they’re also buying art.

"People like that there’s something else to do in St. Moritz," says Thomas von Salis, co-owner of Salis & Vertes. "How many jewels and fur coats can you buy?" Last winter he and his partner, Laszlo von Vertes, opened just up the street from Badrutt’s, in the Chesa Murezzan, a new residential-commercial development designed by British architect Norman Foster. Von Salis says art galleries would never work in another resort—say, Kitzbühel, "which has the wrong environment. St. Moritz has a magic because a great many artists have worked here in the Engadine Valley. And many living ones still come." On the walls he has paintings ranging across much of the 20th century: a 1907 Max Beckmann, a 1925 Max Ernst, and works by classic Swiss stars such as Cuno Amiet and Ferdinand Hodler. The most expensive is a 1960 Marc Chagall at $5 million; a sixties Picasso priced at $3 million already sold.

The expanding art scene extends a short distance up the valley to Zuoz, an ancient village of breathtaking beauty where many visitors stay as a quieter alternative to St. Moritz’s more commercial, see-and-be-seen atmosphere. Here the owners of Galerie Tschudi have converted a former farmhouse into a stunning minimalist showcase that features works by Richard Long, Ulrich Rückriem, Niele Toroni, and Not Vital. "Originally we bought the building as a mountain home and only planned to use a small part of it for displaying art," says co-owner Elsbeth Bisig. "But then we realized that we meet more interesting people in Zuoz than in our main gallery in Glarus. They have time here so they’re more relaxed and free to talk about art. And we’ve sold very well." Today all but a few small rooms in Tschudi’s four-story building are devoted to exhibitions.

This December two more galleries opened. In Zuoz, around the corner from Tschudi, Monica De Cardenas unveiled a sleek, modern space where she shows artists from an international roster that includes Alex Katz, Thomas Struth, and Chantal Joffe. And in nearby S-chanf, Miklós von Bartha converted part of a legendary centuries-old residence into a 500-square-foot gallery and kicked off his program right after Christmas with works by German painter Imi Knoebel. "What made the decision for me was that in 2005 I did as much business between Christmas and New Year’s in St. Moritz as I had the whole year in Basel," Von Bartha says. "And that was without an exhibition space. It was simply from running into people or inviting them over to the house."

Even with the high density of collectors—in a place where luxury needs no justification—selling expensive art is never easy. Rastorfer believes the hardest part is setting the right tone. "You don’t want to break the spirit of a winter holiday by putting pressure on collectors to buy," he says, explaining that it’s best to stay in the St. Moritz mind-set. "The people here are competitive in sports, in status, and also in sophistication, which means they’re competing to own the most important art. And for us that’s a wonderful thing."

This scene has attracted, not surprisingly, a growing number of wealthy Russians. Their presence was evident at the last round of annual jewelry auctions that Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold here in February, right after the White Turf races—where one can watch Thoroughbred horses and reindeer alike sprint- ing through the snow. Russian buyers accounted for a quarter of the sales. And they’re also buying art.

"People like that there’s something else to do in St. Moritz," says Thomas von Salis, co-owner of Salis & Vertes. "How many jewels and fur coats can you buy?" Last winter he and his partner, Laszlo von Vertes, opened just up the street from Badrutt’s, in the Chesa Murezzan, a new residential-commercial development designed by British architect Norman Foster. Von Salis says art galleries would never work in another resort—say, Kitzbühel, "which has the wrong environment. St. Moritz has a magic because a great many artists have worked here in the Engadine Valley. And many living ones still come." On the walls he has paintings ranging across much of the 20th century: a 1907 Max Beckmann, a 1925 Max Ernst, and works by classic Swiss stars such as Cuno Amiet and Ferdinand Hodler. The most expensive is a 1960 Marc Chagall at $5 million; a sixties Picasso priced at $3 million already sold.

The expanding art scene extends a short distance up the valley to Zuoz, an ancient village of breathtaking beauty where many visitors stay as a quieter alternative to St. Moritz’s more commercial, see-and-be-seen atmosphere. Here the owners of Galerie Tschudi have converted a former farmhouse into a stunning minimalist showcase that features works by Richard Long, Ulrich Rückriem, Niele Toroni, and Not Vital. "Originally we bought the building as a mountain home and only planned to use a small part of it for displaying art," says co-owner Elsbeth Bisig. "But then we realized that we meet more interesting people in Zuoz than in our main gallery in Glarus. They have time here so they’re more relaxed and free to talk about art. And we’ve sold very well." Today all but a few small rooms in Tschudi’s four-story building are devoted to exhibitions.

This December two more galleries opened. In Zuoz, around the corner from Tschudi, Monica De Cardenas unveiled a sleek, modern space where she shows artists from an international roster that includes Alex Katz, Thomas Struth, and Chantal Joffe. And in nearby S-chanf, Miklós von Bartha converted part of a legendary centuries-old residence into a 500-square-foot gallery and kicked off his program right after Christmas with works by German painter Imi Knoebel. "What made the decision for me was that in 2005 I did as much business between Christmas and New Year’s in St. Moritz as I had the whole year in Basel," Von Bartha says. "And that was without an exhibition space. It was simply from running into people or inviting them over to the house."

Even with the high density of collectors—in a place where luxury needs no justification—selling expensive art is never easy. Rastorfer believes the hardest part is setting the right tone. "You don’t want to break the spirit of a winter holiday by putting pressure on collectors to buy," he says, explaining that it’s best to stay in the St. Moritz mind-set. "The people here are competitive in sports, in status, and also in sophistication, which means they’re competing to own the most important art. And for us that’s a wonderful thing."

Artists in Residence

The breathtaking Engadine, the valley that stretches some 60 miles near Switzerland’s border with Italy and Austria, has long been a home and a retreat for artists. In the late 19th century the great Italian landscape painter Giovanni Segantini made the region his leitmotif (there’s a museum of his work in St. Moritz). Alberto Giacometti grew up in Stampa, a short distance from St. Moritz, and he frequently returned from Paris. In the eighties Zurich dealer Bruno Bischofberger’s chalet attracted Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, and others who came to paint and party. Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, and Richard Long are regular visitors today. "The Engadine is famous for its beauty, and because the valley runs east-west, it has an extraordinary intensity of light," says Swiss artist Not Vital, who has three homes here. "Over time it has become an almost mythical place among artists."

Many collectors who visit St. Moritz stay at Badrutt's Place Hotel (from $630; 27 Via Serlas; 41-81/837-1100; badruttspalace.com), a landmark since 1896, or at the Kempinski Grand Hotel Des Bains ($875–$11,930; 27 Via Mezdi; 41-81/ 838-3838; kempinski-stmoritz.ch), the other, equally elegant five-star option. You’re more likely to meet artists at the high-end yet famously low-key Hotel Waldhaus ($320–$965; Sils-Maria; 41-81/838-5100; waldhaus-sils.ch)—Richter’s favorite—or at the funkier Hotel Castell in Zuoz ($230–$370; Via Castell; 41-81/851-5253; hotelcastell.ch), which owns a first-rate art collection that features Pipilotti Rist, Carsten Höller, Martin Kippenberger, and James Turrell.