From Delacroix to van Gogh - Max Silberberg's collection

Published on: 13 / 12 / 2009

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

If an average Wroclaw's citizen, interested in culture, had been asked, in the third decade of the 20th century, where to find in Wroclaw, the most significant private collection of artworks, they would surely have no doubt about it. They would have mentioned a villa that raised at the border of South Park and belonged to a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur Max Silberberg.

The collection formed by him was pride of the city and excursion target for many art connoisseurs. Those who succeeded in seing personally the collection gathered by Silberberg, didn't hesitate to compare its creator to the most renowned contemporary art colletors, such as an american banker Andrew Mellon, whose collection was origin of National Gallery in Washington.

Max Silberberg was born in 1878, in a family of a tailor master, in the Brandenburg village Neuruppin. As a child he had to be particularly intelligent, since his family decided to put themselves financially for his education high school. After he had completed military service, his family, including father Isidor and sister Margarete, moved to Bytom (Beuthen O.S. in German). There the talented adolescent most likely received his education in trade. In 1902 he was employed proxy at a company "M. Weissenberg", started four years before, engaged initially in trade and production of stoves, bricks and magnesite articles. The company developed at large scale and became tycoon at European market of those products. Shortly after beginning his job Max Silberberg married the daughter of the company owner, Johanna Weissenberg. In 1906 was born their only son who was named Alfred. Within the same period began to appear the fabricator's art interests.

The collector initially purchased artworks by Wilhelm Leibl and by artists from his circle, thereafter he gradually extended his interests on other genuine artists (among them were mainly Carl Schuch, Hans Thoma, Wilhelm Trübner and Hans von Marées). However the paintings sought by Silberberg were hardly purchasable because of strong competition with museums and other art collectors. This circumstance, according to Paul Abramowskieg, author of one of the issues dedicated to the discussed Wroclaw's collection, might have affected the collector's decision about including in his collection the "more simply purchasable”, high quality works by French painters. A part of the collection which included works by impressionists, had already been formed in Wroclaw, where the Silberberg familmoved in 1920. The collectioner at time already had already been jointowner of the company "M. Weissenberg” and controlled its branches in Świdnica and Düsseldorf. The level of his affluence can be testified by large dimensions of a villa purchased by him in the Landsbergerstrasse 1-3 (currently ulica Kutnowska), as wellas by the fact that Silberberg ordered the decoration of his dining room, by an accomplished artist, headmaster of the Wroclaw's Academy of Fine Arts, August Endell. In this stylistically homogeneous interior were exhibited works of the modernism, mainly the "Bridge in Trinquetaille” by van Gogh, "Reading” by Renoir and "Jas de Bouffan” by Cézanne, there was also readjusted a vitrine presenting older arts and crafts' works from the collector's possession.

The inner walls of the sumptuous Silberberg's villa was totally decorated with about two hundred and fifty artworks, among them numerous works by the leading impressionists. The visitors could admire at least five canvas paintings by Pierre-Auguste’a Renoir, at least by three paintings by Édouard Manet and Paul Cézanne, by two by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro and a few pastels by Edgar Degas. The collection didn't lack works by Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso, and among artist of older generations - by Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste Camille’a Corot. Today the pictures deriving from the Wroclaw's collection decorate the most prestigious museum institutions in the world: Musée d'Orsay and the Lovre in Paris, the Hermitage, National Gallery in Washington or Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the New York's museum we can currently admire a gorgeous drawing by van Gogh depicting an olive hurst by Saint-Rémy, which till 1999 was housed in Nationalgalerie of Berlin and was one of the first artworks returned to the apparent owners, basing on the Washington declaration referring to property forfeited within the World War II. The foundation called Prussian Trusteeship that controlled property of the Berliner museum admitted that the auction of artworks owned by Silberberg, which had taken place in 1935, in Paul Graupe's House in Berlin, was enforced. The drawing by van Gogh wsa returned to the collector's daughter in law Gerta Silberberg, who decided to offer it on auction in the London's salon Sotheby’s, where it reached the record sum of 8,5 million $, one of the highest amounts in history for a work on paper! For comparison it shall be added that the Dutch master's painting, entitled "Bridge in Trinquetaille”, which had also once been housed in the Wroclaw's collection, in 1987, on action in the competitive auction-house Christie’s in London, reached the sum of 20,24 million $, having been at the same time the third most expensive paintings by van Gogh in history (after the "Iris flowers” and "Sunflowers”). This circumstancies allow to imagine at least approximately, the worth of Silberberg's collection.

In the early 1920s, Max Silberberg's collection gained reputation also beyond the city borders, owing to numerous press issues, whose authors described delightfully the collection. Encouraged with enthusiastic opinions of connoisseurs, more art amateurs and critics knocked at the door of the Wroclaw's villa. Silberberg was visited mainly by the director of National Gallery in Berlin, Ludwig Justi and by a famous art critic Julius Meier-Graefe. For the guests thematic lectures were organised, that were frequently given by collaborators of Silesian Museum of Fine Arts, Heinz Braune and Erich Wiese. But even if one of the artworks' amateurs were unable to arrive in Wroclaw, there was great chance for them to see the paintings or sculptures from Silberberg's collection in one of the European art metropolis, where they were presented in exhibitions.

The financial crisis forced the collector to capitalize a part of his collection in 1932, in the salon Georges Petit in Paris. Three years afterwards he was ordered, as a Jew, to leave his luxurious villa. Since then the building served to the security service of the NSDAP. The collectioner was allocated a small flat in the Kurfürstenstrasse 28 (currently ul. Racławicka) where there was enough place neither for large-scale artworks, nor for a big library. Silberberg parted with with most artworks and arts and crafts' works, and with the library, in mediation of the Berliner Paul Graupe's Salon, on a few auctions that took place in 1935 and in 1936. On those auctions were totally offered 160 artworks. Visible sing of the rapidly worsening situation of the Jewish population in the German Reich was the "crystal night”, when the collector's only son was arrested and transported to the concentration camp operating for at least one year in Buchenwald. Luckily he was exempted a few days later, subject to leaving Germany immediately. In 1939 he emigrated with his wife Gerta to Great Britain. Max Silberberg and his wife Johanna, in spite of hard economic conditions (their company had been overtaken by the state one year before), decided to stay in Wroclaw. Slowly they were being forced to dispose of pozbycia valuable things and few artworks remaining in their hands. In 1941 Mr. and Mrs. Silberberg were taken to the concentration camp in w Lubiąż, then via Teresienstadt to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

The collection formed by Silberberg was taking breath away. If the artworks gathered by the Jewish industralist and by other contemporary Wroclaw's collectors (mainly Leo Lewin and Carl Sachs) could be still be admired in Wroclaw, it would be the most impressive gallery of impressionistic painting in this part of Europe.

The issue has been written with reference to the book by: Magdalena Palica, Od Delacroix do van Gogha. Żydowskie kolekcje sztuki w dawnym Wrocławiu, Wrocław 2010 [in the press]

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