Fragile legacy

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 70

Fragile legacy

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 70

A rare Höchst figure of La Scaramouche from the Italian Comedy, circa 1752

Fragile legacy

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 70

A Höchst figure of a seated Oriental drinking tea, circa 1750-55

Fragile legacy

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 70

When the great collector Emma Budge died in Germany in 1937, her inheritors received nothing from the sale of her treasures – they were commandeered by the Nazis. Robert Bevan tells the story of what happened next

Among the grandest of the grand villas along Hamburg's luxurious Harvestehuder Weg was that owned by Emma Budge (pronounced Budker) and her husband Henry. The couple had bought the late 19th century house on their return to Germany from the United States in 1903, after Henry had made his fortune financing American railroads. Henry and Emma created the Budge Palais, extending the white-stuccoed and turreted mansion with a Hall of Mirrors on the Versailles model, as a venue for the philanthropic couple's charity balls. Emma then filled the house with paintings, antique china, silver, bronzes, tapestries and fine furniture.

She collected only the best, competing with her rivals, the eccentric Hermine Feist in Berlin, and Otto and Magdalena Blohm of the Hamburg shipping family, who had a villa further along the street. By the First World War, Emma had gathered together one of the most important assemblages of decorative arts in private hands. Among her finds were choice works of early European porcelain – by Fulda, Frankenthal, Höchst, Meissen and Kelsterbach – and some of these pieces are now being offered by Bonhams in June's European Ceramics sale.

In Emma's time, collectors took their passions seriously, devoting many hours of scholarship to understanding their purchases and identifying future quarries. But it was also a gilded dusk before decades of war, economic collapse and the rise of the Nazis, which meant disaster for the Feist and Budge families, who were Jewish.

After Henry died in 1928, the childless Emma decided to bequeath her collection to Hamburg's Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. She changed her mind when Hitler came to power in 1933 and the repression of the Nazis' enemies began in earnest, but that didn't stop the Nazis from gaining control of her 2,000 or so artifacts. Because she was a US citizen, Emma was to some extent protected while she lived, but when she died in 1937, her property didn't reach her heirs. Instead, all of it was put up for sale by the Berlin auction house Paul Graupe, on Bellevuestrasse, through which many forced sales of Jewish collections were channeled.

Emma's collection had long been hidden away from public view in boxes and cupboards in the Budge Palais cellars, so the quality of her treasures astonished the staff of Berlin's Schlossmuseum who wrote the sale catalog. For all that, the precious objects fetched derisory sums at the two auctions held in October and December 1937 – they went for between 70 and 95 per cent below their true value; they were eagerly snapped up by art dealers and galleries, including the Swiss dealer Theodor Fischer, who was collecting objects for the vast Führermuseum that Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria. (His wartime forces looted artworks from across Europe, intended for that museum.)

Even those pitiful proceeds were denied to Emma's rightful heirs, and her collection was scattered across the world, with museums in Scotland, the United States, the Netherlands and even Germany eventually acquiring items.

Restitution of property seized from Jewish families by the Nazis, either by forced sale or outright theft, has become a live issue in recent decades. This is in part because of the establishment in 1998 of the Washington Principles, an agreement by 44 nations to take more active steps to return items confiscated by the Nazis to their rightful owners.

The circumstances of the 1937 sale of the Budge collection remain murky (and the value of antiques in pre-war Germany had in any case plunged); but the fact that the heirs received none of the proceeds of the sale make it a clear-cut case of looting, and Emma's heirs have set about reclaiming their lost inheritance, both for the family and for the three, still-extant, Budge foundations that Emma first established.

Their task has been made somewhat simpler because the Berlin sale was clearly cataloged and the identity of some of the buyers was recorded. Other descendants of Jewish victims of the Nazis have had less success in tracing their material inheritance, because inventories of their ancestors' possessions are often missing and the whereabouts of the items remains unknown. Many people who now own looted artworks may have little idea about the dubious provenance of items that their own parents or grandparents might have bought, postwar, in good faith.

Germany is, however, attracting increasing criticism because of its failure to expedite the restitution process, especially the many thousands of items still held in public collections at state level. Many of these art institutions have yet to check the provenance of their holdings in anything like an expedient manner.

In the Budge case, however, the family lawyers have been successful in persuading museums to right past wrongs by returning objects from their holdings to the family, which now lives mostly in the UK and Germany. These include items from the Münchner Stadtmuseum, the State Museum in Schwerin and the Colombus Museum of Art in Ohio. These have been sold to raise money for the heirs, and for beneficiaries such as the Budge Nursing Home in Seckenbach – the only nursing home in Germany for both Jewish and Christian residents.

Among the items that Bonhams is now offering on behalf of the Budge heirs are those bought by a German museum in the 1937 sale and recently restored to the estate. The small consignment of rare porcelain gives an indication of the sharpness of Emma's eye. It is made up of five figures from the Höchst factory – three commedia dell'arte characters (including Pantalone and La Scaramouche), a Chinoiserie figure slurping his morning tea beneath a tree, and a figure of a putto. The Höchst factory was established with the support of the Elector of Mainz in 1746 and the theatrical figures date from 1752, when the factory was producing porcelain of the highest quality for the upper echelons of the market.

The Budge villa is now Hamburg's music academy and the interiors of the Hall of Mirrors, which was once a center for the city's cultural and social scene, have been reinstalled in a museum.But a fragment of the elegance of the lives of Henry and Emma remains in the movement of these exquisite figures, brought back into the light after a dark and painful history.

Robert Bevan writes about architecture, design and heritage. He is author of The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War.

Conversation piece

Höchst's porcelain figures were used as talking points for courtly tables

One of Europe's oldest porcelain manufacturers, Höchst was founded in Höchst am Main in 1746. It produced figurines of an attractive naïvety, as well as decorative plates, vases and other vessels. Characters from the Italian commedia dell'arte, such as those found in the Budge Collection, were enormously popular in the 18th century. Highly crafted versions were produced for royal courts and the nobility, while cheaper versions were available for the emerging bourgeoisie. The commedia troupes' ribald and scurrilous stories, and the meaning of the gestures of the figurines, would have been understood by those seated around a table. The figures were placed on the table as talking points – helpful at court, where rigid hierarchies meant that you might be stuck next to the same diner night after night.

Höchst's pedestal-mounted figures were produced in various levels of quality. Emma Budge's examples were from the early period of the factory, when the craftsmanship was at its finest; deeply hued paints and gilding were used, and the figures' clothes are painted with technically difficult swirls. The figures are also markedly less saccharine in their demeanor than those mass-produced by the factory in later years. There is speculation that Emma's figures may have been produced for the Elector of Mainz himself. A small red-painted wheel on the side of the figures, rather than the usual factory mark on the base, is also an indication of their vintage. They would have been costly purchases even when they had just been made, let alone as antiques.

The fourth item from Emma's collection is a chinoiserie figure – a European man dressed in oriental clothing and aping what was thought of as Chinese manners. The figure is shown pouring his tea into the saucer to cool it, which was, incorrectly, thought of as very Chinese behavior. In fact, it was pretentious European manners; the Chinese drank from the cup. The figure is a rare survivor. Emma is likely to have acquired it with its leaves already damaged – almost all the delicate foliage from figures of the period has been broken – but she chose to keep it in an honest state of disrepair, rather than attempt a root and branch restoration. R. B.

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