The auction house Hans W. Lange, Berlin, 1937–1943
When researching the short-lived but notable Berlin auction house led by Hans W. Lange (1904–1945), successor and “Aryanizer” to the firm of Paul Graupe (1881–1953), communal museums stood out among the buyers. We rarely encounter them on the auction market today. At a second glance, these buyers not only seemed to have a growing economic impact. They also showed quite varied interests and intentions.
A municipal museum in the German-speaking world often originates from a historical society or a donation, with various sizes and directions independent of the importance and character of the hometown. In the prosperous years of the Weimar Republic, some were given full-time directors, regular endowments and democratic procedures for acquisitioning. Some were still small “Heimatmuseen”, that is local history museums or municipal collections without any staff. However, the Nazi regime established authoritarian acting directors or commissioners throughout.
Since we do not have a comparative study of this type of institution, our starting point are material documents of an area’s cultural history. Different types of artefacts were collected. Some I would call “needs”, allowing local collections to expand. With increasing funds, we will proceed to “desirables”, a sign of ambition. Between available funds and available supply, museums identified works to add to their collections. Their objectives resulted from a variety of purposes.
Beginning with a selection illustrating the spectrum, I will subsequently discuss a few examples where changing motives can be found. In any case, the examples show the growing participation and successful activity of municipalities in the German auction market.
Decorative Arts and Local Connections – Museum Lübeck, Hans Schröder, 28 March 1939
In 1939, the firm Lange offered two Delft vases from a private collection. According to the catalogue, they had been in use “at the sacristy of the parish church in Lübeck”. Naturally, the director of Lübeck’s museum, Hans Schröder (1887–1954) wanted to acquire them, but could not fund the purchase. So, he found an ally in neighbouring Kiel, whose museum director Ernst Sauermann (1880–1956) bought both Delft vases, paying four times over the estimate. The pair was then split between the institutions and Schröder paid more than 50 percent to Kiel. To preserve historical objects relevant to the region, institutions needed to fend off other interested parties.
Decorative Arts and Local Production – Museum Münster and Museum Bremen, 12 October 1937
Documenting regional production of artefacts was another part of these museums’ mandate. The important private collection of Emma Budge (1852–1937) was offered by Lange in 1937. Among the historical textiles were these cushions, whose coats of arms belonged to families of Lower Saxony. They illustrate both local production levels and wedding customs. The museums of the local towns of Münster and Bremen competed accordingly. They agreed to buy one each and bid against each other on the third, for which Münster had to pay double the estimate. Emma Budge’s collection, offered in a sale without reserve for time pressure because of pending emigration of her heirs, did not yield high overpayments.
Local Development and Local Society – Stadtmuseum München, Konrad Schießl, 18 November 1938
A municipal museums’ mandate also covers documenting local development as well as local society. The Munich museum director Konrad Schießl (1889–1970) bought two paintings very cheaply at the end of 1941: one by Ludwig Meixner, an unspectacular city view nevertheless traceable to the precise location of the artist and phase in building development about 1880; the other a festive scene by Rene Reinicke, where the museum recognized some of the town’s personalities.
Schießl was also director of the city’s painting gallery, therefore taking interest in artistically remarkable depictions of regional painters. In 1938, he bought a painting by Philipp Röth, an important local representative of landscape painting, depicting a farmhouse marked by weather, seasons and the passage of time. Schießl was authoritatively empowered. Though well endowed, he remained cautious, and his concrete, but largely unrivalled interest delivered only small prizes here.
Regional Landscape Painting – Museum Celle, Albert Neukirch, 27 January 1943
As seen with Röth, artistically significant depictions could deliver higher results than the estimate. For an early example of Eugen Bracht’s influential landscapes, the buyer had to pay almost double the estimate in order to prevail against a competitor bidding for the “Reichskanzlei” which looked for representative decorative objects. Albert Neukirch (1884–1963), director in Celle, bought the ‘Heidelandschaft’ as an early artistic depiction of this characteristic landscape formation.
Historical Furnishings and Style Rooms – Museum Celle, Albert Neukirch, 21 May 1941
With the backing of the local mayor, Neukirch was able to acquire many objects. The idea to refurnish the historic rooms of Celle’s castle gained traction. Contemporary objects allowed Neukirch a freedom of choice.
For cabinet presentation in historical rooms, Neukirch was able to accept imperfect pieces of porcelain with repairs which special collectors would have shunned. With increasing, though all in all moderate means he could afford porcelain pieces and pictures. At the end of 1940, he bought three Old Master paintings at Lange’s: a landscape, a still life and a sumptuous portrait of a French court mistress, which cost the town little more than the estimate. Neukirch believed to be attending a legitimate sale of the late Jacques Goudstikker’s (1897–1940) estate – the paintings were restituted in 1947.
Artists, Local Customs, Competition – Märkisches Museum Berlin, Walter Stengel, 16 April 1943
Larger sums had to be spent when there was double-layered interest. The Berlin city museum (known as Märkisches Museum) bid on a painting of a rural festivity, remarkable as it included the painter Bernhard Rode’s self-portrait. Moreover, having the picture meant entering into competition with the Berlin State Museum, where a well-known version by Daniel Chodowiecki hung in the exhibition. The city museum’s director, Walter Stengel (1882–1960) wanted to acquire the picture to put his house on an equal footing. But even more importantly, Stengel knew the painting, knew its previous owners and knew it had been seized. Stengel bought the painting regardless and, in the absence of higher-level competition, got it for the estimate.
The available funds can obviously be traced back to a reform that had taken effect shortly before. In 1935, trade taxes were redirected. The locally levied trade tax was no longer paid to the federal states but to the municipalities. Their revenue increased sevenfold by 1943, clearly fueled by war production and its suppliers. From this budget, cultural projects could draw funds to enhance local political prestige.
Birthplace of the Artist – Stadt Brandenburg, Wilhelm Sievers (?), 12 May 1942
In 1939, for example, the city of Brandenburg, thriving with steel industries, decided to collect works by the painter Theodor Hosemann, born in the town in 1807. The town only boasted a small museum without any staff, but ambitions were high because of the expanding war economy, and eventually culminated in the goal of assembling a painting gallery of regional artists.
Brandenburg bought several works by Hosemann at auction through Lange, who was adept at keeping them supplied. In 1942, the city, very probably the mayor Wilhelm Sievers (1896–1966) himself, had to pay double the estimate to fend off the agents of the planned “Führer Museum” in Linz, who had already snatched up three of the pictures by Hosemann on offer.
Works by local artists are part of a municipal museums’ bread and butter. Many more examples could be shown. But motives were shifting with increasing funds. Political ambition met ideology.
Victorious Gesture – Sammlungen Stadt Chemnitz, Waldemar Ballerstedt, 25 September 1941
In Chemnitz, the cultural commissioner Waldemar Ballerstedt (1893–1968) held a specially created political office. His office implied directing the municipal collections.
In 1941, Ballerstedt bought this painting from the former collection of the ‘Jewish’ banker Jakob Goldschmidt (1882–1955) for five times the estimate, the most expensive item among the city’s purchases. Ballerstedt will have relished the opportunity to travel to the auction, to mingle with great collectors and museum professionals, bidding in person to buy an artwork listed as national heritage. Other works on offer he could not afford. Research has shown that copies of the picture were made to be hung in rooms of party officials. The victorious gesture by expropriating a banker whom propaganda held responsible for the economic crisis becomes obvious.
Birthplace of the Jewish Collector – Kaiser Friedrich Museum Magdeburg, Walter Greischel, 7 February 1939
At Magdeburg’s municipal museum, the town already growing into another centre of the arms industry, the director Walter Greischel (1889–1970) had the foresight to buy three works by 19th century painters as early as in 1939. While prices for Arnold Böcklin and Hans Thoma subsequently shot up, he did not even have to pay the total estimate.
The paintings, however, came from the estate of tobacco manufacturer Alfred Sommerguth (1859–1954) and his wife Gertrud, who had to service debts resulting from coercive taxes in order to emigrate. Sommerguth had been born in Magdeburg. Seeing that this museum bought only one more object at Lange’s auction house, and a smaller one at that, Greischel’s intentions are unclear. Did Magdeburg buy to repatriate art from persecuted collectors, to ‘return’ objects to public property, demonstrating political satisfaction as well as a propaganda signal? Documents as well as paintings have since perished; the question remains.
Bidding War – Otto Förster, Cologne, against Alfred Wolters, Frankfurt, 25 September 1941
Furthermore, ambitious purchases were powered by utilitarian motives. Cologne’s museum director Otto Förster (1894–1975) later recalled the city’s treasurer instructing him to buy works of art. He was to invest money the city was saving on wages and salaries of employees sent to war. Thus, we are possibly dealing with a second, probably considerable, source of funding, with further investigations still pending.
For investment purposes, Förster also targeted an object offered at the auction of the former property of the banker Jakob Goldschmidt. He was not the only one: Frankfurt’s director, Alfred Wolters (1884–1973) had also been set up with funds by his mayor. Both intended to purchase Gustave Courbet’s work for obvious reasons. The two directors engaged in a bidding war, with Wolters beaten, despite a budget raised at the last minute. The enormous hammer price, both in terms of increase and volume, gave rise to critical comments and yet another plan to regulate art market prices, but ultimately without effect.
Financial Investments – Wallraf Richartz Museum Köln, Otto Förster, 25 September 1941
For the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne, Förster eventually bought four more paintings. By selecting two French and two Dutch painters he planned to secure internationally renowned artist names and supposedly stable values.
Förster distrusted the increasing demand for 19th century paintings, and wanted to follow his own judgement. As prices indicate, he was not the only one, as demand for internationally renowned painters increased dramatically. The paintings were estimated at RM 119,000 and Förster finally spent a total of RM 298,000 for five objects, not to mention the buyer’s premium. As an investment, however, Förster’s acquisitions were a failure since the museum had to restitute all of them, buying back just one.
Reorganizing the Collections – Stadtmuseum Stettin, Otto Holtze, 19 October 1940
Finally, let us take a look at the municipal museum in Stettin. As is probably known, the museum was emptied to an extraordinary degree because over 1,000 works of modern art were purged as so called ‘degenerate art’. Director Walter Riezler (1878–1965) had excelled in collecting contemporary art. His successor Otto Holtze (1892–1944) wanted to refocus the collections with an ambitious reorganization.
Holtze was in a position to spend considerable sums of money with art dealers, focusing on the period of early Romanticism. In 1940, he bought further paintings such as dutch ‘Golden Age’ paintings and Biedermeier genre paintings. With the objective of creating a painting gallery, he had to spend double and triple the estimates at the Lange sales in Berlin.
On the Way to a Painting Gallery – Stadtmuseum Stettin, Otto Holtze, 16 April 1943
With regard to the funds, it can be assumed that Stettin also prospered through the steel and shipbuilding industries in the war economy, allowing the municipality to invest in art.
In 1943, Holtze entered into a bidding war with the goal of adding a further picture to his stock of works by Jacob Philipp Hackert, already containing three of his own purchases. At the auction, he was able to keep up until a limit of 115,000 Reichsmark. But eventually, the painting was won by the deeper pockets of the art dealer Maria Almas Dietrich (1892–1971), acting for the “Führer Museum” in Linz.
Historical Links and “German-ness” – Stadtmuseum Stettin, Otto Holtze, 16 April 1943
After his failure in obtaining the painting by Hackert, Holtze made amends by buying a landscape by Jan Wijnants, also at great expense even if he only had to spend half the price for the lot he lost. A preference for Dutch paintings underlined historical and geographical trade and migration links, while also serving to demonstrate the region’s “German-ness”. Willi Drost (1892–1964) in Danzig followed the same strategy, publishing and receiving praise in 1943 for his purchases of works by Dutch painters, with the support of his “Gauleiter” Albert Forster (1902–1952).
With implementing the National Socialist hierarchical “leader principle”, the republic’s decision-making processes for acquisitions through commissions and procedures were abolished. Municipal museum directors could decide independently, but were directly accountable to their mayors, who released funding. This inspired new ambitions, as mayors also committed themselves to upgrading municipal collections, and in some cases also prompted regional party officials to become involved as patrons.
The money that was spent increased significantly. The rise has to be seen in connection to higher revenues and savings fueled by the war economy. While consumer goods production fell drastically, arms production increased considerably, generating substantially rising incomes for the municipalities through trade tax. At the same time, local governments were relieved of part of their expenses because labor costs went down.
The question, then, is not whether ‘degenerate art’ helped finance the war, but whether the war funded municipal art ownership.
Purchases seem to have been targeted regardless of whether objects had been expropriated or not. In other words, if objects were seized or not, was of no concern. Awareness of expropriation, however, fueled secondary motives to an extraordinary extent, be it with regard to demonstrating a return to the fold of national ownership or to ideological evidence of political superiority.
The classical task of a regional collection to preserve works of art typical for the local context expanded into greater ambition. With the money at hand, higher prices were attainable. Higher prices instilled a desire for the possession of classical top-level artworks. In the process, the objects were assigned shifting meanings. Wishes and desires take a full range, from demonstrating participation in high culture through obtaining significant assets, including aesthetic education following ideological intentions, up to economical utilitarianism or narcissistic political demonstrations.
Consequently, we need to reflect in more detail on museum purchases, on the institutions’ extremely varied objectives and decisions, and we need further research results to do so effectively. Due to increased efforts of provenance research, this knowledge is often already available, even if it is widely scattered. So, let’s go for it!
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Markus Walz: Machtvakuum Museumswesen? Sekundäranalyse von Abschlussarbeiten der Leipziger Fachschule für Museologen (1987–90) zu Museen als nationalsozialistisches Politikfeld, jenseits der Kunstpolitik, o.D., https://slub.qucosa.de/api/qucosa%3A2717/attachment/ATT-0/.
 Excerpt from a larger research paper, revised for this presentation (TIAMSA conference, 3 June 2021), with selected literature listed below.
 Special thanks go to Sarah Bock, Dr. Christopher Galler, Steffi Grapenthin, Dr. Dariusz Kacprzak, Dr. Susanne Meyer-Abich, Dr. Regina Prinz
Dr. Caroline Flick, historian, is academically independent and her work focuses on the history of the Berlin auction house Hans W. Lange and the art market in the National Socialist era. http://carolineflick.de/wer/cs/