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One of the few remaining German private collections of Gothic and Renaissance sculpture contains some magnificent pieces but provides little insight into its history

The exhibition disappoints and leaves the collector’s passion concealed

“Gothic and Renaissance Sculpture: the collection formerly of Justizrat Dr. Gerhart Bollert” (until 1 October), is both an opportunity taken and a chance missed.

This is the only important collection of late Gothic and Renaissance sculpture in Germany to remain in private hands, and the last of the great private collections in Berlin to have remained virtually intact since the early twentieth century.

The exhibition, organised by the Berlin Sculpture Collection and the Museum für Byzanitische Kunst and held at the Kulturforum, celebrates a distinguished collector, Dr Gerhart Bollert (1870-1947), who must have been a fairly typical example of the enlightened bourgeois patron that contributed to the creation of the Berlin collections (both public and private) under the guidance of Wilhelm von Bode.

Under the Nazis, this type of collector and collection vanished forever. After the war, it was Bollert’s daughter-in-law Liselotte who took on the task of keeping the collection together. Her recollections of the decades-long struggle with the expropriation techniques of the German Democratic Republic and of the eventual restitution of the collection after 1989 make a fascinating read, and the exhibition is also a tribute to her perseverance.

What could, however, have been an exemplary case study of taste and patronage in pre-World War II Berlin, remains within the limits of a type of art history that reads and looks like an homage to the great Bode himself. There is no doubt that putting together a catalogue of the Bollert Collection, including those pieces that the family sold or donated to German museums over the years, has been a worthwhile effort. But apart from the meticulous assignation of dates and the scrupulous attribution and re-attribution of the ninety-five exhibits, there is little sense of the will to reconstruct this bygone age of connaisseurship.

The catalogue offers a summary essay on Dr Bollert and the history of the collection, and only minimal information in the catalogue entries. The exhibition itself, housed in the cavernous basement of the Kulturforum, shows the sculptures alongside a series of 1930s photographs. They document the interior of the Bollert villa on the tree-lined boulevard that is now the Strasse des 17. Juni (and devoid of villas, let alone private art collections). Looking at these views, one gets an idea of the labour of love that went into putting such a collection together.

It all started in 1908, with a wedding gift of a fifteenth-century Virgin and Child. In the following years, Bollert profited from the dispersal of the “second generation” of Berlin collections, such as that of Benoit Oppenheim. There is an enchanting softwood figure of the Virgin, kneeling in prayer, with three putti arranging the folds of her garment, by the Master of the Biberach Family, with an Oppenheim provenance. Bollert also acquired his only work by Tilman Riemenschneider, Christ’s Supper at the House of Simon, a fragment of the Männerstadt altarpiece (1492-90), on loan from the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, from the same collection.

Impressive as it is, the presentation leaves the visitor without a hint as to what made this type of sculpture so fascinating for Bollert. There is no information on the network of advisors and dealers that undoubtedly fed the collector’s passion for ownership. There are neither provenances nor acquisition dates, neither quotations nor facsimiles of any archival material, such as bills, to make Bollert come alive again as a person and as a collector.

In their obvious delight at having maintained a close and trustful relationship with the Bollert family for almost a century, and their equally obvious hope for a major donation, the Berlin Sculpture Collection and Museum für Byzantinische kunst seems to have forgotten that there is an audience with a wish to be delighted, too.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A collector’s passion concealed'