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Works of art, antiquities, ethnographic material

Max von Oppenheim laid the foundation for his collection of works of Islamic art in the winter of 1883 on his first trip with his uncle Alexander Engels to the west Asian region of Turkey. Upon his return to Germany and his apartment in Wiesbaden, he furnished a room in “Turkish” style, in tune with the spirit of the times which expressed the nostalgic, Oriental romanticism gripping many European travellers to the east at the end of the 19th century. Exotic interiors, often limited to a single room, served as stages for personal “Oriental” fantasies.

Photo: Festive dress from Dalmatia, 1st half 19th century

Photo: Festive dress from Dalmatia, 1st half 19th century

Oppenheim’s collecting activities began burgeoning in 1896 when he became affiliated with the Imperial General Consulate in Cairo, shortly before his 36th birthday. At first, his acquisitions were made intuitively, and then purposefully, with deliberation. Soon the collection included more than 8,000 objects. At Oppenheim’s request Kurt Erdmann (1901–1964) prepared a catalogue in four volumes, complete with brief descriptions of the pieces which included ancient works of art, ceramics, glass, metalwork, weapons, fabric, costumes, carpets, paintings and graphic art, books, ethnographic objects, coins, porcelain, and Western miniatures – reflecting “…a cross section of the products of craftsmen and artists on offer in Oriental bazaars and by art dealers at the turn of the century.” (Andus Emge). The range of the collection reveals Oppenheim’s methodical approach to acquiring an overview of the material culture of the regions visited, but he seldom made a note in his journals of when or where an acquisition was made nor the price paid.

The room with the “golden bed,” Berlin undated
Upper part of an Achaemenid clay sarcophagus, 5th/4th cent. BC

An idea of the impressive extent and quality of Oppenheim’s collection and how it was displayed can be gained from photographs of the intérieur of his home at Bab el-Lok in Cairo and of his apartment in Berlin at Kurfurstendamm 203. In stately rooms, works of Islamic art and ‘ethnographica’ were attractively arranged alongside antique German furniture to create a homey atmosphere, despite the museum-like presentation. In 1926, financial contingencies forced Max to give up his noble “Ku’damm” address and to move with the entire inventory to two conjoined apartments at no. 6 Savigny Platz. The Institute for the Research of the Orient, founded in 1922, was also located there, as well as his office, library, and portions of his Tell Halaf collection. The Tell Halaf Museum and a selection of the rooms in the administrative building were carefully documented in photographs, but none exist of the twelve-room residential quarters at Savigny Platz.

The Fate of the Collection during World War II

In the years after 1933, as insolvency threatened the life’s work of Oppenheim the private scholar, he was increasingly preoccupied with trying to find a way to transform his Institute for the Research of the Orient into a public institution. When bombing raids of Berlin intensified during the ensuing war, the additional urgent need arose to protect the Tell Halaf sculptures. (Their value, as property of the Foundation, was estimated at five to six million Reichsmark.) Negotiations to this end had not been finalized when the Foundation’s headquarters were rendered uninhabitable after an initial bombing raid in August 1943. Two more ‘hits’ – in November 1943 and January 1944 – resulted in total destruction by fire of the ruin at no. 6 Savigny Platz.

These dramatic events made it increasingly difficult for Oppenheim’s staff to protect effectively the objects and documents, packed in crates, from damage, destruction, and looting. Oppenheim tried to document where the remaining property of the Foundation was stored as precisely as possible in diverse lists, so that the boxes could be reclaimed at some later date. A list dated 31 January 1946 names a dozen sites where crates had been sent, among them the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island in Berlin, manor houses in Zettemin (Vorpommern) and Mahlsdorf (Brandenburg), and even a warehouse in New York City where those objects which Oppenheim had taken to the USA were put in storage in 1932 for safekeeping.

Interior of Oppenheim's house in Cairo c.1900
Tin-plated copper basin, Iran, 15th century

“Please save the rest of the foundation!”

Thanks to the active intervention of Werner and Emmy Caskel, Helmuth Scheel, Otto Streu, Walter Andrae, and Ernst Kühnel, nearly 2,000 objects from the collection, about 1,250 books and manuscripts, and almost all the albums of photographs could be saved and transported to the British zone of occupation early in 1949, following Caskel’s acceptance the previous year of the professorship for Oriental Philology at Cologne University. At the first meeting of the trustees of the Max von Oppenheim Foundation after the war, under the directorship of Richard Graf Matuschka-Greiffenclau, they resolved to cede the rescued items of the collection on loan to the university until further notice.

Today, the property of the Max von Oppenheim Foundation, enlarged thanks to acquisitions, is maintained on behalf of the Foundation in a number of museums and university affiliated institutions, but a comprehensive inventory of all the holdings has not yet been completed.