Despite his blindness—or because of it—Johann König was perceived as the wunderkind disruptor of the Berlin art scene. His breakthrough work as a gallerist, unveiled when he was just 21, was a sculpture by the artist Jeppe Hein of a motorized metal ball which, powered by its own irresistible energy, steadily destroyed the walls of the gallery that housed it. Say what you like about contemporary art, but it does throw up some rather pleasing metaphors.

On August 31 of last year, at the height of the art world’s busy, boozy summer season, Die Zeit, one of Germany’s foremost newspapers, published a slew of stinging #MeToo allegations about König and his past conduct. The accusations came from 10 women and centered primarily on König’s behavior at, and around, various art-world parties in 2017.

König and the actress Sarah Nevada Grether dance at a König Galerie party in Paris.

The women accused him of uninvited, forceful kissing; sexual groping; lingering, creepy hugs. “[I felt] like I’m a small animal being eaten by a big one,” one of the accusers told Die Zeit, while another claimed she “yelled at him and insulted him” to ensure König stopped harassing another woman. “He held me so tight that I couldn’t move,” claimed another accuser of a separate incident in which, according to Die Zeit, König “started kissing her face, licking her ear and pressing against her waist and butt.”

König immediately denied all allegations. In a statement, the now 41-year-old said that “Die Zeit’s reporting is false and misleading, I am shocked.... Old rumors are repeated, and new ones are spread without proof.” The gallerist did, however, acknowledge that “my dissolute and impulsive way of partying, dancing, and talking … may have led to women or even men feeling harassed by me, or my actions even perceived as assaultive,” in addition to the fact that “crowded rooms, alcohol, darkness, [and] my poor vision” could well have led to confusion around boundaries and behaviors.

“My dissolute and impulsive way of partying, dancing, and talking … may have led to women or even men feeling harassed by me.”

For those intimately involved with the Berlin art scene, this was a particularly intriguing mea culpa. For the vast majority of König’s career, his near-total blindness, caused by a freak childhood accident, has been painted as more superpower than stumbling block.

Born into European-art-world royalty in 1981 (König handily translates to king), Johann’s father, Kasper, was a notable museum director cited as “the inventor of Germany’s post-war avant-garde,” while his mother was an illustrator and actress previously married to film director Wim Wenders. Gerhard Richter was the best man at his parents’ wedding; Warhol and Hockney would often pop round for tea.

Johann’s father, Kasper König, “the inventor of Germany’s post-war avant-garde.”

The path looked set for a career in the nepotistic world of commercial art. And then, at the age of 11, König was playing with some gunpowder and ball bearings when the box they were held in suddenly exploded in his face.

“I had a huge hole in my hand, and the whole room was full of blood,” he said in an interview with Art Agenda in 2010. “I hit the door and ran out and my parents were at home and then I said to my father, which was kind of strange, ‘If I am blind, I will commit suicide.’”

König was left with near-total blindness, though procedures in the decades since have allowed his left eye to gain between “20-30%” sight. “Your vision is as if you want to gaze out from the inside of your body and hit an impenetrable layer,” he explained in his well-received 2019 memoir, Blind Gallerist. “You see as if your vision has been locked inside your body.”

Undeterred by his impairment, König went on to forge a singular career in the German cultural scene. From the early 2000s, people began to talk of a “mythological blind gallerist” and “psychic phenomenon,” according to Art Agenda, who seemed to spot what rivals missed, and whom collectors adored.

At first, König was self-conscious about his sight. “How serious can you take someone who can’t see the artwork they are trying to sell you?” he told The Guardian. But he began to see his blindness as a gift. “Blind people are often capable of an unusual degree of inner concentration and heightened perception,” he wrote in his memoir, while noting that his visual impairment makes him less susceptible to the baubles and flashiness of the modern art market, and happier to call bullshit on various flavors of the month.

Since 2015, his now revered gallery has been housed inside the looming, modernist St. Agnes church in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. It hosts cutting-edge shows, free yoga classes, and a gift shop whose “souvenirs”—such as a $45 soap-on-a-rope in the shape of a pickle—are beloved by the capital’s movers and shakers. König recently launched an offshoot gallery in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district, while another annex was opened in an old car park in London’s Marylebone. (It closed in 2020.)

St. Agnes church, Berlin: the austere home of the König Galerie.

The blindness that set him apart from other gallerists is now being deployed as a shield against his accusers. It may not be particularly effective. König is no longer some afflicted prodigy but a towering figure at the center of the art scene. Indeed he is powerful enough, according to Die Zeit, that most of the women who spoke out against him did so anonymously for fear that their careers would be torpedoed.

At the end of October, König’s lawyers secured a temporary injunction against Die Zeit from a Hamburg court, which caused the article to disappear entirely from the Internet for a day, only to return partially redacted in order to comply with the court ruling. Other publications that had reprinted the allegations were also forced to remove or redact their stories.

The blindness that set him apart from other gallerists is now being deployed as a shield against his accusers.

Even so, on November 4 the U.S. publisher of the English-language version of König’s memoir announced they were freezing the “shipping and promotion” of the book in light of the allegations. By the end of November, 10 high-profile artists had fled the König stable entirely—almost a quarter of his talent—and he had been uninvited from Art Basel. The walls, already cracked, were beginning to crumble.

However, some were more skeptical of Die Zeit’s revelations. At the end of November, an article by Berliner Zeitung, a popular daily newspaper based in Berlin, accused the three authors of the Die Zeit story of reckless “activist journalism” and “vigilante justice” that had found König “guilty without trial.”

It noted that no legal proceedings had been filed against the gallerist. More intriguingly, the piece accused one of the Die Zeit authors, Carolin Würfel, of indulging in a professional vendetta against König, perhaps because he had at one point “flipped” an artwork he bought from Würfel’s husband, the rival gallerist Alfons Klosterfelde. It was a practice that had made König plenty of money, and enemies, throughout his career.

Speak no evil: König, seen here with a piece by one of his gallery’s artists, Kathryn Andrews, has been ruthless in silencing the accusations against him.

Most bizarre of all, however, was Berliner Zeitung’s discovery of a 16-page script synopsis written by Würfel for a “Netflix-style miniseries” which eerily echoed elements of the König case. Set in the “dazzling Berlin art world” in which “abuse of power is part of daily business,” it stars a character called Alexander Fürst, who is described as “Germany’s most successful gallery owner and art dealer.” Fürst is beset by a childhood illness which leaves him with a distinctive limp. Fürst, it should be pointed out, is the German word for prince.

The story also features 10 women who want to go to a major newspaper with sexual-abuse allegations against the gallerist, and ends with a gruesome scene in which a vigilante journalist seduces and then tortures Fürst in the name of feminist justice. The screenplay opens by claiming the story is “inspired by true events.” Perhaps, the Berliner Zeitung implies, Würfel thought her fictional pitch would have more topical heft if the actual “Alexander Fürst” was subject to a takedown in real life.

From that angle, the Die Zeit article—and, indeed, the whole case—begins to resemble a postmodern meta-work worthy of Charlie Kaufman; a high-concept performance piece that König himself would, in less trying times, no doubt happily sell.

We await the final act. On December 15, the Hamburg court ruled that Die Zeit had a right to publish a piece that it deemed was in the public interest and didn’t need to remove the article—though, according to Berliner Zeitung, several statements from the original story had to be entirely redacted, likely in the wake of the Würfel revelations.

The art world is divided about the meaning of it all. Jerry Saltz, the esteemed New York critic, appeared to tweet in support of König with a translation of the Berliner Zeitung headline: The Case of Johann König: Why Die Zeit should never have published their article. Meanwhile, Soup du Jour, a Berlin-based feminist group, has posted an open letter to Monica Bonvicini, one of the most famous artists to jump the König ship, entitled: “Dear Monica Bonvicini, Better Excruciatingly Late Than Never.” In the letter they accuse Bonvicini of ignoring the allegations against König in the past.

Is this a timeless #MeToo parable of a man abusing his power? Or the journalistic assassination of a misunderstood genius? Is a wrecking ball destructive or creative? As König himself knows, the very best art is open to interpretation.

Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London