1990s and what happened next

Eero Epneer

Art Collecting in Estonia

At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, art life changed decisively – and so did institutions. The first private galleries were established at the beginning of the 1990s, and for the first time in Estonian history, the foundation was built for a network of galleries that dealt with selling art as well as organizing regular art exhibitions. This most basic level of art institutions has helped to shape the Estonian art market (which truly gained momentum in the second half of the 1990s) for only the past two decades. Until the currency reform of 1992, the art market was dominated by an “art sale honeymoon”, as referred to by one gallery owner involved in the swirl of activity back then. As roubles were worth almost nothing, art obtained a certain market value, and people bought considerable amounts of it. However, this did not result in the emergence of a credible class of art collectors, especially because after the currency reform, the honeymoon was over, and “the beginning of the market economy was symbolized by a disastrous loss of interest in buying art”. It was the beginning of a murky period for both society and the art market. Criminals or suspicious characters in track suits and sneakers also claimed to be art dealers, and among other things, they trafficked fakes and works obtained by fraud. But as the society underwent transformation, the rules of the art market became clear. First, larger corporate collections were established (for instance, by banks), and slowly but surely, people with a sincere and abiding interest in art emerged from the muddy waters of the 1990s. At the end of the 1990s, the first art auctions started to be held. These auctions had an important symbolic role, because soon auction prices were making records, and the resulting headlines attracted several new collectors.

The middle of the first decade of the new century can be considered a highlight of Estonia’s art market: each year there were as many as twenty auctions, involving a total of almost one thousand works of art. Considering Estonia’s size, this is an incredible number. Auctions were successful – up to fifty or sixty bidders could participate in one, and about half of them could be considered art collectors and regular buyers. This core group still exists, but several people who used to frequent art auctions during the economic boom gave up buying art when harder times hit. The volume of the art market has also fallen significantly – the number of auctions as well as the number of works sent to auction has sharply decreased, and quite a few galleries have moved to the suburbs or to smaller spaces. The establishment and growth of corporate collections has not recovered either – it almost died out a few years after the turn of the millennium. Therefore in today’s Estonia the most important collections arguably belong to state museums and the Tallinn Art Hall, which made its purchases during the Soviet era. In addition, there are about thirty major private collections and a few individual corporate collections.

When the von Neff auction took place in 1928, the biggest buyers, according to one magazine, were an engineer, a doctor, a builder, and the director of a hospital. In today’s Estonia the most typical art collector would be a middle-aged business magnate, but middle class art collections are virtually nonexistent. Most of the big collections are also very new, established in the past ten to fifteen years. Only a negligible number are based on a decades-long tradition of collecting. The most important is Mart Lepp’s collection – in terms of number of pieces, it is probably one of Estonia’s biggest collections (if not the biggest). He inherited the collection his mother started. There are several other collections that consist of the works of only one artist and whose owners are the heirs of the artist – and there are some scattered collections with a core of just five or six paintings, but by a very strong artist.

Without a doubt, the most well-known art collector is Jaan Manitski, former manager of Swedish pop group ABBA and an Estonian expatriate businessman who returned to his homeland. Manitski had old factory buildings rebuilt in his home village, Viinistu, and created a small art museum there. The museum is open to the public and exhibits several hundred works of art, but Manitski says it might be about one-third or less of the size of his total collection. Other important collectors (such as Guido Sammelselg, Rene Kuulmann, Mart Lepp, Henn Koch, Urmas Sõõrumaa, Tõnis Sildmäe, and Enn Kunila) have also organized public exhibitions, drawing from their collections. In addition, there are some major collectors who prefer not to open their collections to the public.

It is significant that the biggest private collections in Estonia all focus on older Estonian paintings – that is, art created in the second half of the nineteenth century and up to 1945. Far fewer collectors are attracted to classical modernism (which emerged in the 1950s), and contemporary art in its various forms is almost completely out of the picture. True, some individual collectors also buy paintings from the 1990s and 2000s, but no major deals are known to have taken place in, for example, internationally successful Estonian video art, or even photography, not to mention installations. Estonians have not yet discovered collecting international art either. Here and there are some works by Russian artists, and about a decade ago one commercial sale made news – the media commented that people who had previously had nothing to do with art collections now felt it necessary to buy some second-rate graphic prints by Picasso. But there is just one collector who has gathered Western art, both older and contemporary. This man is Guido Sammelselg. His collection, which included works by Munch and Hirst, has, unfortunately, since been broken up.

The reasons why collectors prefer older art seem clear: a realistic language of paintings that stresses the classical values of painting is easier to understand and also “more beautiful”. Echoing the success of Impressionism in the world art auction halls, in Estonia the biggest attention has been given to Post-Impressionist Konrad Mägi (1878–1925) and his other contemporaries. Incidentally, local collectors pay almost no attention to the cubist avant-garde, which had a short heyday in the 1920s and is highly appreciated by official art history. Moreover, where older paintings are concerned, the nationalistic ideology is still not unimportant. This art, which depicts mainly landscapes, is not just immortalising the scenery (often the collector has some connection to the area depicted in the painting), but also ideological: though statehood is no longer in danger, nationalistic ideology is still a relevant issue in Estonian society because this is seen as the only way of preserving cultural identity in a changing world. In the past few years this notion has taken on a certain nationalistic or patriotic aspect, which is why the biggest art collections in Estonia today clearly seem conservative and ideological given the social background. Fear of the avant-garde, combined with a national touch, is the recurring statement of most of the collections. At the same time, art collectors have little choice: their collections mirror, for better or worse, what has been the mainstream of Estonian art.