Meissen porcelain salvaged by Monuments Men fetch £ 10million at auction

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An auction featuring 117 pieces of Meissen porcelain fetched more than £ 10million. The auctioned items once belonged to lawyer and industrialist Dr Franz Oppenheimer and his wife Margarethe. The collection then fell into the hands of the Nazi regime, from which it had to be rescued.

A small circular soup tureen with two Meissen handles, cover and support, circa 1730-35. (Photo credit: Sotheby’s)

The collection has been kept in various Dutch museums for 70 years. It was in the hands of the Rijksmuseum when the descendants of the Oppenheimers approached the Dutch Restitution Constitution Committee, arguing that they were the rightful owners.

The committee sided with the family in 2019, citing that they had “lost possession of the items unintentionally due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime.” After securing ownership of the collection, the family approached Sotheby’s auctioneers to sell it.

“After the defeat of the Nazi regime, the collection was discovered by officers of Allied Monuments in a salt mine in Austria, where it had been placed by Hitler’s curators for safety,” said Lucian Simmons, global restitution manager at Sotheby’s. “The collection was first taken to Munich, then sent by the Allies to Holland. The Dutch government placed it in three museums, including the Rijksmuseum, where it remained until it was returned to the Oppenheimer heirs.

“We cannot comment on their motives, but this is a group of individuals and it is quite common for returned collections to be sold to convert the inheritance into a form more easily distributed among the descendants of a victim. of Nazi persecution, ”he continued. .

Pair of Meissen Augustus Rex beaker vases with blue background
Pair of Meissen Augustus Rex beaker vases with blue background, circa 1725-30. (Photo credit: Sotheby’s)

The Meissen factory was established in 1710 and was the first in Europe to produce hard-paste porcelain products equivalent to those in China, which had been producing porcelain for 2,000 years. As such, its products are highly regarded. While the auction was expected to fetch £ 2million, it ended up fetching £ 10.5million, as many items sold beyond demand.

Among the items sold was a rare Meissen emblazoned tea and coffee set from 1731, which fetched £ 958,000. The most profitable item was a 17-inch tall Meissen clock dating from 1727, which grossed £ 1.16 million.

More than half of the collection was purchased by the Rijksmuseum. The Rembrandt association confirmed having made a contribution to the museum to enable it to buy back the objects.

According to Richard Hird, specialist in the English and European ceramics department at Sotheby’s, the sale marks “the highest total ever recorded for a sale of European ceramics. The depth of the auction and the sustained competition we witnessed throughout the auction, as well as the many acquisitions by the Rijksmuseum, testified not only to the extraordinary quality of the pieces themselves, but also to the taste and vision. exceptional events from Dr Franz and Margarethe Oppenheimer.

Four Monuments Men with Leonardo da Vinci "Lady with an Ermine"
Monuments Men with da Vinci Lady with an Ermine, 1946. (Photo credit: Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program / Wikimedia Commons)

The German porcelain collection was acquired by Oppenheimer and his wife in the 1920s and 1930s. They purchased the items at a time when they were being removed from the Royal Collection in Dresden.

In 1936, as the Nazis began to impose restrictions on the Jewish people in Germany, the Oppenheimers fled their home in Berlin and settled in Vienna. They emigrated to the United States two years later, just before Austria was annexed by Germany. Before moving, they sold their Meissen ornaments and figurines, in an attempt to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.

Much of their collection was purchased by a man named Fritz Mannheimer, who died in 1939, and it was subsequently liquidated by his bank. The 117 Meissen coins from the 17th and 18th centuries were finally found in the Netherlands in 1941 by a member of the SS and handed over to Hitler.

Meissen cane in the shape of a horn on a silver frame
A horn-shaped cane handle mounted in Meissen silver, circa 1730-35. (Photo credit: Sotheby’s)

First installed in the Vyšši Brod Monastery in South Bohemia, the collection, like other stolen works of art, was transferred to Austrian salt mines to protect it from Allied bombardment. The objects were eventually located by members of the Monuments, Beaux-Arts and Archives, a group of art experts, librarians and museum curators tasked with recovering the stolen works of art before the Nazis could. destroy them.

The collection was transferred to Central Holding Point and returned to the Netherlands, where it remained until 1949. As Mannheimer’s executors were not interested in seeking restitution, the collection was transferred to the holdings of the Dutch state, some of which were held as property available for restitution and the rest in the Rijksmuseum.


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