No land for art collectors

Eero Epner

Art Collecting in Estonia

Thus, the Estonian art market of the 1920s and 1930s was active only in the relatively narrow field of nationally themed art. Major local collectors built their collections on it. And though one artist complained at the end of the 1920s that “we have collectors, but most of their collections grow with the works of artists that are already dead,” this assessment seems too harsh. Exhibitions and ateliers sold a great deal of contemporary art as well; they even used artists as advisers. And at the beginning of 1928, the first Estonian art auction took place, where the Neff collection was sold, eventually earning more than 10,000 kroons (at a time when the average worker’s monthly salary was thirty kroons), even though almost half of this amount was paid by a single collector from London. State collections too became more and more substantial. Even though the government evicted the Estonian Art Museum from its original location (to turn the building into a presidential office), the Estonian Art Museum still represents the history of Estonian art in the most thorough manner. One reason is that, over the years, several collectors have given the museum collections a boost. One such individual was Alfred Rõude, probably one of the most famous collectors in Estonian history, who managed to acquire a remarkably good collection of graphics and paintings thanks not so much to his wealth, but rather to his good personal relationships with the artists (for example, he served as a quasi-manager to Eduard Wiiralt, the most internationally known Estonian artist). Today the museum has created a separate collection from the works he bequeathed; in it Wiiralt’s graphic works alone number over 500. The collection of Konrad Mauritz – a business magnate, one of the most famous art collectors, and a board member of the Art Museum Foundation – also ended up in the Art Museum. Right after the coup of 1940, he deposited part of his collection in the Estonian Art Museum, and before he was arrested the following year, he did the same with the rest of his collection. Altogether his collection included 920 paintings and graphic prints as well as thirty-five sculptures. The collection included works by Baltic German artists as well as important Estonian artists. Even though he only deposited them in the museum and did not donate them, most of these pieces remained in the hands of the museum in the chaos of subsequent decades and due to incomplete documentation.

The collections of Rõude and Mauritz were among the biggest in Estonia at the time, although several other collections are known to have existed. Still, it is difficult to estimate the number of collections as well as their exact content because the information is incomplete. For example, the memoirs of the collector quoted above list fourteen collectors by name, but they have been chosen randomly – from Mauritz and Rõude to amateurs who owned only a few random graphic prints. The documentation is so fragmentary partly because of World War II and the events connected to it, which severely damaged the emerging tradition of Estonian art collecting. Several works of art and whole collections were destroyed; several others disappeared; and owners took many works (and sometimes whole collections) with them when they escaped abroad; these losses are in addition to the properties that were seized by the Red Army or civilian Soviet officials. In several cases in which art owners were deported, their works were reportedly seen on the walls and offices of high party officials decades later. (A peculiar ideological counter nuance is that in the 1940s, some collectors allegedly discarded works created by those artists who collaborated with communists.) In the chaos of the 1940s, it was not only private collections that suffered thefts and unlawful confiscations, but also the Estonian Art Museum. The museum experienced further disaster when a ship evacuating its treasures sank. Many works of art were also taken out of Estonia during the German occupation, when the art market was in full bloom and German officers bought Estonian art to send home as gifts.

Therefore the 1940s saw all the most important art collections split into pieces, and as private property and the art business as such met with strong disapproval under the Soviet system, the story of this field in the decades that followed is quite unclear. In fact, today, Estonia has only a few scattered art collections that were established before the second half of the 1980s, and those were created by fanatical art lovers who received the works for their collections as gifts directly from the artists. The size of such collections has naturally benefited from this practice, while the thoroughness and consistency in terms of quality has not. True, back then there were some antique shops and commission shops that dealt in Estonian art as well as older art (but naturally not contemporary Western art). However, new collections still were not established for various reasons. Nevertheless, Johannes Mikkel, a manager of one such store, acquired a remarkable art collection. Everything he had collected before the war was destroyed in 1941, but he managed to establish a new collection by travelling in the Soviet Union and buying art on his trips. This collection consisted of paintings from Western Europe (especially works dating from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries), China, Russia, and Estonia, as well as graphic prints and porcelain (altogether more than 6,000 works of art). He later donated it to the Estonian Art Museum, which has now opened a Johannes Mikkel Museum as a separate branch to exhibit his collection.

Mikkel’s collection is a very rare example of active private art collecting between the 1950s and the 1980s. Yet the social reception of art improved greatly during the Soviet era. Under a restrictive regime people turned towards culture to seek not only entertainment but also an escape from gray workdays, as well as hidden and forbidden symbolism. Such searches were extraordinarily intense. (In these decades print runs of fiction were several times higher than at any time before or since, and people routinely attended the theatre and other events, as censorship and forced isolation left them hungry for culture.)