A rich story in fragments: Gustav von Klemperer's porcelain collection

Economist 11 December 2010

A PORCELAIN figure that's had its head knocked off and stuck back on usually kills a sale as quickly as beheading kills a man. Collectors want perfection. Yet at Bonham's Fine European Ceramics auction in London on December 8th, nearly every one of 38 lots of Meissen was damaged, often very badly. They were the remnants of the famous, early 20th-century collection of Gustav von Klemperer, a Dresden banker and connoisseur. Two of the lots featured the few remaining chunks of once magnificent painted vases, made for Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony. (In 1710 the prince set up a manufactory at Meissen, the first outside the Orient capable of producing hard-paste porcelain.) A dashing harlequin figure holding a jug had a visible white gash on his otherwise vividly painted left leg. The face of Hofnarr Frölich, a little court jester, looked as if he'd been shot at close range. A few lots were the remains of elaborate originals—the curved, flower-painted arms of a chandelier; the columns of a model Temple of Minerva. Who would want to buy such wrecks?

Entering the salesroom, the answer was plain: there was plenty of interest. The place was packed. More than a dozen agents manned telephones lined along one wall. Staff chattered away in French, English, Italian and Russian. The first von Klemperer lot to come up were those chandelier arms. Estimated at £800-1,200 it sold for £6,000 ($9,600), including the buyers' premium. We were off. By "we" I mean an assembly of dealers and collectors—local and foreign—along with about a dozen descendants of Gustav von Klemperer who had come from America and South Africa, and me. I've been gripped by the story of this collection since I first heard about it in Dresden almost ten years ago.

The tale begins in Baroque 18th-century Dresden, and continues in the homes of cultivated Germans (many of them Jews) who collected such porcelain works at the turn of the 20th century. Enter the Nazis who stole the collection from its owners, followed by the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden and the city's postwar existence in communist East Germany, where spies and their betrayals invaded even the museums. But a near-miraculous porcelain discovery in 1951 culminated decades later in the return of works to von Klemperer's descendants. And now, the coda, this Bonham's sale. No wonder some of the family were tearful as bidding began.

Gustav von Klemperer's collection of more than 800 pieces of Meissen porcelain is judged to have been the best private one ever assembled. The Nazis confiscated it and sent it to Dresden's porcelain museum. In the early 1940s, everything portable was removed and hidden in the hills east of the city. When Soviet troops approached from that direction, the treasures began to be removed and transported to the west of the city. Orders were given that trucks were not to stop in Dresden en route. The exhausted driver of one truck packed with crates of von Klemperer's porcelain disobeyed, and parked in Dresden the night of February 13th 1945. By morning, Allied incendiary bombs had killed more than 25,000 people and turned one of Europe's most beautiful cities into a landscape of black ruins. A mountain of rubble filled the courtyard of the royal palace, where the porcelain-bearing truck had been parked. The communists did nothing to restore a former princely home. The rubble remained.

No one knows how much of the von Klemperer collection was in that truck or what happened to the rest. What is known is that in 1951 a workman found a piece of porcelain in the still uncleared courtyard. Curators were called and they unearthed more, all of it once von Klemperer's. They restored and displayed as much as they could. In 1991, after German reunification, 83 pieces were returned to von Klemperer's descendants. They gave 63 of them to the Porcelain Gallery (part of Dresden's famous museum complex) and sold the remainder at Christie's. Then, two years ago, more was discovered in the Porcelain Museum's storerooms, which was swiftly returned to the family. From the various bits Sebastian Kuhn, a specialist at Bonham's, selected what he felt might sell. He catalogued 43 lots, with estimates that were essentially informed shots in the dark. Nothing like this material had been offered before.

Excited surprise filled the room as prices soared. The jester with part of his face missing sold for £10,200, more than ten times the low estimate. Harlequin sold for £108,000, five times the low estimate. Fragments of Minerva's temple went for £20,400, nine times the low estimate. Everything sold. The total raised was £546,492, more than double the low estimate.

Collectors were drawn by the quality and rarity of many pieces. (Few dealers dared to buy such damaged material for stock.) But they, along with bidders new to porcelain, were attracted also by the story. These cracked and chipped fragments of once perfectly beautiful works of art tell a tale of splendour, subtlety and refinement, brutality, thievery and murder, duplicity and respect. As for the family, Victor von Klemperer, Gustav's prosperous great-grandson, speaks for the rest when he says, "As a result of this sale, I am totally at peace with this part of the family's history." The implication is that the money is nice, but the sense that justice has been served is better.
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