Power Punk: Leo Koenig

New Old-World art dealer; gallery royalty; young fogey

“Leo is 26 going on 40,” said collector Norman Dubrow, 76, gesturing toward Leo Koenig, a tall, fresh-faced man dressed in a fogeyish brown corduroy suit. One of Mr. Koenig’s artists, Eric Parker, agreed. “He’s a gentleman’s art dealer,” he said. “He’s not trying to be hip.” Mr. Dubrow then paid Mr. Koenig his highest compliment: “He has an eye,” he said.

It was a cold December evening, and Mr. Koenig was playing host at a private viewing at his Tribeca gallery. He looked like a kid who’d crashed his parents’ soirée in his father’s favorite circa-1970’s suit, hobnobbing with an A-list crowd of collectors and artists who’d come to check out the show-a mishmash of ancient sculpture and contemporary painting, with third-century marble statues (and two Andy Warhol drawings) squashed next to the work of current art-world darlings like John Currin and Nicole Eisenman.

It was clear that Mr. Koenig, the son of renowned German curator Kasper Koenig (his mother, Ilke, is an art-book dealer), was right at home. Even if the logic behind the show was not entirely comprehensible (what was with the Roman statuary, exactly?), it had a combination of daring and gravitas.

Over the last four years, Mr. Koenig has become a presence downtown due to his impeccable eye and businessman’s M.O.: spotting promising new artists, then driving up the prices using his exclusive list of collectors. Conservative, with an early-to-bed work ethic, he is an irritant to the fashion-forward downtown art scene.

There is plenty of grumbling that Mr. Koenig’s family connections and money are the real engine behind his accomplishments. The name Koenig in the art world is akin to Coppola in the movies. The Koenigs were key players in the New York and German art scene in the 60’s and 70’s, counting Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Gerhard Richter as part of their circle.

Mr. Koenig, who has not accepted money from his parents-“That is a common misconception,” he said in German-accented English-admits that his name opened doors, “but you still have to convince the people behind the doors that what you are saying is valid,” he said. “I’ve just stuck to my own ideas, sometimes against everyone’s advice.”

Mr. Koenig was born in New York but grew up in Munich, returning here at the age of 19 to escape mandatory military service in Germany. “I couldn’t fathom the idea of being in the army for a year and a half,” he said, sitting in his tidy, art-book-filled office at the back of the gallery. “My ambition stood in the way of the German Army.” After apprenticing with Soho dealers David Zwirner and Brooke Alexander for a year and a half, Mr. Koenig decided to go it alone. “People around me-including my family-wanted me to get investors and open a big space in Chelsea and go nuts, but I decided I was going to do it by myself.”

At 21, he opened in a Williamsburg garage. His first opening, with Lithuanian sculptor Aidas Bareikis, drew crowds despite the fact that the wrong date was printed on the invitations. “The only thing I got right that night was getting Brooklyn Lager to sponsor it. We had a truckload of beer,” Mr. Koenig said. In May of 2000, Mr. Koenig opened his first Manhattan gallery on lower Broadway. It was partially destroyed on 9/11, so in late November 2001, the gallery moved to its current location, opposite the old police headquarters on Centre Street, taking advantage of cheap post-9/11 rents.

Mr. Koenig said he is uninterested in being part of a “young gallery-owners” scene. He sticks to a rather Teutonic regimen, allowing himself one party a month besides his own openings. “I stopped drinking six months ago,” he said. “It was bad for me.” Setting up shop within the borders of Chinatown, Mr. Koenig separated himself from the art scene’s creative hub-and the exorbitant Chelsea rents. “I wanted to be in a neighborhood I could actually live in,” Mr. Koenig said. He lives above his gallery with his 32-year-old girlfriend of five years, artist Debora Warner, and is determined to vanquish the trend-obsessed, party-addled competitors who sneer at his Old-World model. “If I can’t outsmart them, I will outlive them,” he said.

-Shazia Ahmad

Power Punk:  Leo Koenig