Famous Art Nouveau villa to be reinstated through bold effort by Saxon town

Collectors and dealers hold back to let Chemnitz buy back part of its history



It sounds just like a fairy tale. A spokesman for the Cultural Affairs Department in Chemnitz, an industrial town in southern Saxony, found out from Georg Brühl, one of the foremost art collectors in the former DDR, that a large collection of furniture and objets d’art was to be put up for auction. The collection was created by Belgian architect and designer Henry van de Velde for the villa of a local industrialist. Almost miraculously, museums and wealthy collectors interested in the lots agreed not to bid against the head of the department . It is rare in the world of auctions that art lovers do not try to outbid one another. Equally unusual is that so much consideration should be shown to someone who, for long stretches of time, was bidding unopposed. But this is what happened at the 153rd auction held on 7 November at the Wolfgang Ketterer Gallery in Munich. Bids from Christoph Schüler, head of Chemnitz’s Cultural Affairs Department, for the most important pieces of van de Velde Jugendstil furniture and objets d’art, were accepted.

Following German reunification, the town of Chemnitz has been forced to invest money in the ailing industries and has consequently has very little left over for the arts. How was it then that they had the unusually good fortune to be able to acquire a private collection at one of the most important auctiions of early twentieth-century design? Georg Brühl, well-known in both East and West Germany as a collector and recognised expert on Jugendstil and Art Deco, heard about the auction at the Wolfgang Ketterer Gallery weeks before it happened. As soon as he learned that the van de Velde furniture from the Villa Esche was about to come under the hammer, he got in touch with the Chemnitz Department of Cultural Affairs. Presented with a unique opportunity to restore important parts of a building disigned by van de Velde as an expression of harmony between architecture and interior design, a committee was formed to save the house. It was decided to set up a Henry van de Velde and Jugendstil Museum at the Villa Esche. It had been deserted since the 1950s when its owners moved to the West, leaving behind the furniture recently put up for auction. A cash advance from the Chemnitz branch of the Bayerische Vereinsbank enabled the new acquisitions to be paid for out of the local authority’s arts budget. Members of the corporation were convinced that it was important to keep the villa and its contents together. Christoph Schüler told The Art Newspaper that in 1990, turn-of-the-century style was all the rage in East Germany and such enthusiasm was unlikely to occur again. Now Schüler’s most important task is to move the local trade corporation’s training school out of the Villa Esche where it is currently based. He can then set about directing the huge and costly task of renovating the dilapidated building. The Villa Esche is considered one of Henry van der Velde’s most important works.

Herbert Esche commissioned van de Velde in 1902 to design a prestigious house whose exterior and interior would present a unified artistic concept. The roof gables are echoed by those that top the cupboards, and the door frames and door handles, take up and continue the flowing lines of the furniture.

According to Christoph Schüler, the villa will house, as well as van de Velde’s furnishings, one of Germany’s biggest collections of Jugendstil carpets, and exhibits now in the municipal museum in Chemnitz. The museum will also be able to make use of the turn-of-the-century porcelain ornaments and vases left by Georg Brühl to the Kunstgewerbemuseum Köpenick in Berlin. These will be on permanent loan to the collection. Before the Jugendstil museum can be inaugurated, the Foundation set up to save the Villa Esche will need support from all sides.