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Oppenheim as Collector

Max von Oppenheim’s passion for collecting was awakened in his parents’ home. His travels in the Middle East initially motivated him to build a collection of contemporary arts and crafts, focused on objects of everyday life. The diversification of his research ambitions went hand in hand with the expansion of his collecting interests. This not only reflects his scientific curiosity, but also underscores his goal of documenting, through fascinating and appealing objects, as many different geographical and cultural regions of the Middle East as possible.

Photo: Carpet shopping at Hotel Khoudiviet el Koubra, Aleppo 1929


As a collector of Islamic handicrafts, Max von Oppenheim found himself in the best of company in Berlin where the bankers Arthur von Gwinner (1856–1931), Emil Georg von Stauß (1877–1942), and Herbert Gutmann (1879–1942) were known for their Islamic collections and rooms in “Oriental” style. But none of these men sought to realize their passion as consequently as the trained lawyer and retired Ministerresident Oppenheim.

Oppenheim’s increasing interest in the furnishings of prominent Ottoman households extended from objects in daily use to valuable manuscripts and trouvailles. When he returned from his very first journey to Asia Minor in 1883, he brought home wall hangings, carpets, stitched textiles, and robes, which continued to fascinate him well into old age.
Splendid costumes are a particularly good example of his self-image as a collector. Nowadays such garb is subject to strict conservation and preservation measures. But Max loaned even the most beautiful items to his guests for costume balls or other special occasions. A second interest focused on everyday items and objets d’art which were manufactured in the Far East as well as Europe for export to the Near East. Clocks, porcelain, glassware, and bronzes, for examples – whether from Bohemia or China! – are of interest today for many reasons. Not only do they attest local preferences; they document as well the efforts of numerous foreign producers to exploit new markets within the Ottoman Empire

The grand reception room, 203 Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, undated
The porcelain collection as displayed in Oppenheim’s Berlin apartment

The collection’s excellence in its time may be gauged by the fact that more than 80 objects were borrowed from Oppenheim for the exhibition “Masterpieces of Mohammedan Art” (Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst) in Munich which ran from May to October 1910. Earlier Oppenheim had provided loans of several examples of Islamic calligraphy for the special exhibition “The Art of Oriental Books” (Orientalische Buchkunst, February to March 1910) on view in Berlin’s Textile Museum.

Types of acquisitions

Oppenheim made purchases himself, but he also engaged others to acquire items at his behest and bought through local dealers. The precise circumstances of specific acquisitions were only seldom recorded in detail. Long shopping lists attest to what he sought – e.g., “all manner of silk products from the country,” “Chinese porcelain, intact by all means,” or “finest material to be worked in Berlin for liwans”. Oppenheim was a pioneer in the field of collecting traditional household furnishings dating to the end of the 18th /beginning of the 19th century which did not yet interest museums. This enabled him to make many remarkable purchases between 1896 and 1939, the year of his last trip to the Orient. Included among them was an entire wood-paneled room from Damascus, which was lost in the fire which tore through the Tell Halaf Museum 1943.

In later years, Oppenheim also acquired scholars’ Nachlasses, not only to supplement his library collection or information on specific themes, but after 1943 also to recoup losses. Occasionally he sold some items – to Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, for example; yet others were given as gifts in recognition of special merit or exchanged.

Trials and Tribulations of a Collector

In 1929, Oppenheim saw to the incorporation of his collection, together with the Institute for Oriental Research, into the Max von Oppenheim Foundation. Shortly after the opening of the Tell Halaf Museum, he had considered selling individual pieces to insure the Foundation’s continuation as his life’s achievement, as well as to evade looming insolvency. In this connection he undertook two, months-long journeys in 1931 to the East Coast of the United States with the intention of awakening the interest of prospective buyers. He followed the recommendation of having sent after him a selection of works of Islamic art and antiquities, including orthostats from Tell Halaf, but due to the lingering economic crisis, offers remained well below the amount he had reckoned with. Trusting that a rally of the market was just around the corner, he put about 50 items in storage at Hahn Brothers Fireproof Warehouses, New York, in May 1932. When eleven years later the Office of Alien Property Custodian ordered the forced seizure of German property in the USA, Oppenheim’s property was impounded under Vesting Order 1330. In 1949, the Max von Oppenheim Foundation did not pursue a claim of repatriation prior to the passing of a further deadline, despite the recommendation of a Swiss law firm’s branch in Washington, D.C.

Gold embroidered facing for a door frame from the Oppenheim collection
Caftans from the Max von Oppenheim Collection in Cologne's Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum

Between 1943 and 1945 the collection suffered bitter losses when the Foundation’s quarters at Savigny Platz and the Tell Halaf Museum, with neighboring administrative building, fell victim to bombing raids. Buoyed by the hope of saving the remaining holdings from ultimate destruction, theft, or confiscation, Oppenheim arranged that hastily packed crates were taken to a variety of locations. From Dresden, he was powerless to do anything beyond mobilizing his staff with a deluge of letters, sent almost daily, and constantly updating the lists of “storage sites of the Foundation’s holdings.” The difficulties which the realization of his instructions presented are attested by many, sometimes contradictory notes and marginalia. Despite Oppenheim’s prudence and precautions, he was ultimately unable to prevent many more crates full of works of art and records from being stolen or damaged due to inappropriate storage.