Christian D. Link, master curator of Out of this World Department at Koller Auction, has a love for the eclectic. Gold nuggets, a rare Apollo moonwalk photo, Thor's Hammer – all feature in the story of this film student, magician, and collector.
By: Tripti Jangpangi
Posted on: August 16, 2023
The Out of this World 2023 edition took the world by storm by auctioning the first T. rex in Europe. With an astonishing length of 11.6 meters (38 feet) and a towering height of 3.9 meters (12.8 feet), it is one of the most spectacular T. rex skeletons in existence - a well-preserved and brilliantly restored fossil sold for $6 million to the PHOEBUS Foundation. Called Trinity, the foundation will soon be presenting the T. rex to the public in their ‘Boerentoren’ cultural center project in Antwerp, designed by Daniel Libeskind.
This majestic creature was unveiled to the world, thanks to Christian D. Link, art dealer and collector, and the man behind the genius Out of this World department at KOLLER Auction House. This was the second edition of Natural History, Space Exploration and Entertainment Memorabilia collection at the auction house.
Curator Christian D. Link, wearing a spacesuit glove. Image © nzz.ch.
But like all great things, this one also has an intriguing story. When asked about the genesis of the idea to create the ‘Out of the World’ department, he replied, “Since I was very young, I was fascinated by the cabinet of curiosities, a concept popularized in 16th and 17th century. It was very common in Europe. Kings and dukes would have a room filled of treasures, but they were not gold and silver, rather anything and everything that could incite interest, such as scientific instruments, animal parts like horns and teeth, plants, pieces from the cross of the Christ, which created a very personal cabinet of curiosity of that collector.. Which becomes an eclectic collection of diverse objects and memorabilia, everything that people like. In German it is called wunderkammer - cabinet of curiosity.”
Koller Auction is not his first rendezvous with curiosities though. Mr. Link directed the Wunderkammer Gallery for 12 years in Zurich, where he offered exclusive rare pieces to collectors, including a very contemporary cabinet of curiosity. He adds, “I am a big film fan, I went to film school in Los Angeles 20 years ago, hence films are very important to me. Space Exploration is another important element, since looking up to the sky always fascinated me. I like to mix things up. There is no order, so when someone goes through the catalog, everything is like a surprise.”
"I walk around, I speak to the people, and then when you see something that somebody would love to have in their collection, it just catches my attention, and of course the quality is really important."
A 145-164 million years old pterosaur fossil discovered in the Solnhofen fossil bed in Germany and a Moon meteorite found in Mali, Africa - a 475g chunk of moon that was ejected to space during an asteroid collision - are just the tip of the iceberg collection. When asked about his favorite pick from this edition, he replied, “The mermaid-like angelic ship figurehead, known as The Guardian Angel of Sicily, from the late 17th century. The face is unbelievable and I just like to imagine the places that she has been, and the stories she witnessed. Then there is a Narwhal Tusk, an interesting object that was already popular in 16th century, a magical object, people thought that it was the horn of the unicorn, because no one had ever seen the unicorns, nor had ever seen an animal with a horn that long, so they assumed that it could be a horn of the unicorn. It was found in Zurich.”
The mermaid-like figurehead from a ship is one of Mr. Link's favorite lots.
What it takes to collect
There is an art and science to collecting. And then there is luck. You need to be at the right place, at the right time, and have an eye for the distinct. Not everybody can identify the holy grail! When asked about his process of identifying an object that has the possibility to be a part of Cabinet of Curiosity, he says: “Many of my friends ask me the same question: what are you looking for? I will be soon heading out to a market in France, but I never set out to find anything, and I always find things. I never set a particular objective in my mind, today I am going to find this today or tomorrow I will find that. I walk around, I speak to the people, and then when you see something that somebody would love to have in their collection, it just catches my attention, and of course the quality is really important.”
It has always been a mystery about how these objects land up in auction houses, and each piece has its own story. Mr. Link enthusiastically explained how he acquired the Mars Meteorite, emphasizing on the exciting nature of its discovery. “When a meteorite falls on earth, usually it is lost in the water or the amazon forest. It is lost forever. The only place meteorites are only found are… in the desert. So, you have people who call themselves meteorite hunters, they go to the deserts. And when they find stones on the ground - since there are no mountains in these deserts, it makes no sense to find a rock - they assume that it is a meteorite."
"Of course it is amazing to hold 2 kilos of planet Mars in your hands."
The Mars meteorite - one of the lots in the Out of this World 2023 auction.
The story becomes even more surreal from here. “Then they connect with someone using Whatsapp and Telegram, they send pictures, sometimes they even go to market to weigh the meteorite, they don't know if it is from the moon, or the mars, or just an iron meteorite,” he continues. “I ask them to cut off a very small piece, maybe 10 gm, which they send with FEDEX. This I send either to Washington or to Switzerland, to analyze in a lab, and then they give a validation that yes it is a meteorite from the moon. This can easily take up to about six months. These scientists sometimes have a very busy schedule and the analysis can easily take up to four months. I am also interested in the shape. The Martian meteorite is beautiful, it evokes some magic. Of course it is amazing to hold 2 kilos of planet Mars in your hands. It can take almost upto an year from the discovery to be ready for auction.”
Dinosaurs are becoming even more present in collectors’ galleries. But from a fossil field to the gallery, the journey of the dinosaur is filled with regulatory challenges. “When acquiring dinosaurs, from a regulations point of view, the law of the country is very important. That’s why everybody likes to collect from the United States, [because the object] belongs to the person who owns the ground, so he has the right to do everything. There are countries with much strict laws. For example, in France, the State has the right to buy everything first. You need a state approval before buying something. Sometimes it can take up to two years to get the paperwork done. In countries like China, Morocco (sometime you get especial allowance) and Mongolia, it is completely forbidden.”
“I don't want to take away something really important from the museums. I feel if there is a piece important for science, then it must be 3D scanned and well documented, to be shared with all the scientists from natural history museums.”
The ethics of collecting and selling dinosaur fossils are also under question at times. From a moral standpoint, it’s not an easy question to answer. But Mr. Link has some thoughts on that. “I don't want to take away something really important from the museums. I feel if there is a piece important for science, then it must be 3D scanned and well documented, to be shared with all the scientists from natural history museums.”
The Narwhal tusk - an extremely rare, magical object - found in Zurich.
Mr. Link’s team is also working on providing well-researched certificates to stamp authentic bones. Scientist paleontologist give fair rating and specifying bones since sometimes there are replicas, and as a buyer you have to be careful. “I would like to create new standards. I think it is important to talk about it,” he says.
The beginning and the future
This collector, who is also a magician by the way, has an interesting beginning to his career. “I started collecting 25 years ago… I was always a collector. Things that I would find I would bring home, and the collection just became bigger and bigger. I collected Star Wars mementos, toys, etc. Objects became more expensive, I bought more and I sold more, it was a very natural progression. I started to collect and sell ethical taxidermy pieces - no animals were harmed for it. I always liked the art of taxidermy. All of my friends would say no one is going to buy them, but I sold 2000 in the last 10 years. I don't do it anymore, unless it is a special case, but yes taxidermy was part of my life for a long time.” Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals with lifelike effect.
"We are going to announce something very exciting very soon…a very special dinosaur that nobody has seen, which the auction house will unveil in 2024."
Mr. Link closed the shutters of his Wunderkammer Gallery during the pandemic after a successful run of 12 years. He, however, continued to buy from auctions for his personal collection. “Meanwhile, I met Mr. Koller and I proposed to him to do an ‘Out of this World’ auction. In return he gave me a lot of freedom to design and curate a unique collection,” he reminisces. The collector-turned-curator unveiled his first Out of this World collection in June 2022, which was a huge success, followed by the next edition in April 2023.
“At the same time, I have my own showroom, but it is a secret showroom, so people have to make an appointment in an office building, and then you go into this treasure chamber,” Mr. Link says with a twinkle in his eyes.
The future for him is even more interesting. “Now the plan is to do one more auction in December. At the same time, I am shooting a documentary on the Trinity dinosaur, because we only have short films Trinity which are available on the internet. This summer we are going to Wyoming, a big site, where paleontologists are digging dinosaurs. I am also working on a few dinosaur projects from the past two-three years. We are going to announce something very exciting very soon…a very special dinosaur that nobody has seen, which the auction house will unveil in 2024.” And the sparkle is back in his eyes.