Art being collected by Baltic Germans

Eero Epner

Art Collecting in Estonia

The collecting of art in Estonia emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century and continued throughout the nineteenth century, when it was a common practice among the rather small community of Baltic Germans. Estonia was then part of the Russian Empire, but due to special regulations, Baltic German landlords retained local power. They owned land (and Estonian peasants, who were serfs until the beginning of the nineteenth century), and they were also responsible for all activities related to professional activities related to culture. A broad-based group of Baltic German artists was active until the beginning of the twentieth century, and their works could be seen in various exhibitions and purchased for different collections. The owners of those collections were often landlords, but one scientist and director of the Tartu University Art Museum, Morgenstern, also had a remarkable private art collection. In addition to the works by Baltic German artists, graphic art depicting city views, various curios from the past – purchased from Estonia as well as abroad – and reproductions of well-known works also set the fashion in the collections of landlords. (For instance, C.T. von Neff, who housed his collection in two manors, had numerous reproductions of Renaissance works of art – which Neff, also a renowned painter, had produced himself.) There were different ways to buy art. There was an art gallery in Tallinn, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were annual markets (jaarmark) organized in Tartu. In 1805, for example, an Italian dealer advertised that, in addition to knitting patterns, violin strings and boxes of paint, he was also offering “fine English, Italian and French copperplate engravings”. However, it would be an exaggeration to speak of an organized art market at that time, because due to the limitations of the market, the practice of exhibiting works for sale, as well as holding art auctions, did not take root. But the Baltic Germans kept their leading positions not only in the art world, but in the economy and also in a sense in political life until the end of the nineteenth century. Therefore, art collections dating from that era reflect those power relations. Only this particular social class possessed sufficient financial resources, as well as the access to education, to encourage people to take any interest in art at all. In addition, their collections reflected the strong nostalgia common to Baltic Germans. Unfortunately, this love of the past was not limited to their taste in art; it also manifested itself in their social attitudes. Although Baltic German Estophiles inspired Estonians to establish themselves as a cultural nation in the second half of the nineteenth century, by the end of the century these same landlords had largely failed to make the necessary reforms to help modernize society. That was because of their own reactionary attitude as well as that of the system (that is, the Russian Empire). Surrounding themselves with copies of antique and Renaissance art was one way of manifesting their worldview.

Even though the creative life of the Baltic Germans has been thoroughly researched, the same is not true of the art collections of the period. The main reason is that those (roughly 150) collections do not exist anymore. Even though several collections were handed over to local museums, most of the artworks were later taken out of Estonia. When the Republic of Estonia was proclaimed in 1918, the lands (but not the movable property) of Baltic German landlords were nationalized. As the influence of the landlords rapidly decreased, most of the large collections were taken to Germany and auctioned off there in the 1920s. During the Umsiedlung (resettlement) of 1939–1940, approximately 14,000 Baltic Germans left Estonia. They probably took with them the last remnants of nineteenth-century art collections, which had been spectacular, at least in the local context.

While Baltic German collections, the only private collections that existed in Estonia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were broken up and lost, the situation was less grave for private collections established in the twentieth century.