Philippe Sands, a new novel "The Ratline" and a china dinner service. Thanks to Bonhams.
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
I have spent years delving into the lives and personal papers of the Viennese couple Otto and Charlotte Wächter for my book, The Ratline. Towards the end of the writing, unexpectedly, a china dinner service entered that story.
The service was acquired by the Wächters in the summer of 1938, after the Anschluss, when they were handed the Villa Mendl, a fine property with a park of its own, whose Jewish owner Bettina Mendl fled, ending up in Australia. Otto, a lawyer and rising SS star, became State Secretary in the new government, charged with removing Jews from public office. He would go on to serve as Nazi governor of Krakow and then Lemberg, and be indicted for mass murder. His wife Charlotte, a designer of fabrics who studied at the Wiener Frauenakademie und Schule für Freie und Angewandte Kunst, had an eye for fine objects: the china service was one. After her death, it went to their son Horst, who I had come to know, and he wanted to return it to the heirs of the original owners, in Brisbane, Australia, but couldn’t pay the costs.
This was the extent of my connection with looted porcelain, as the glorious Rothberger collection came into view. Three of the four Rothberger brothers – Moritz, Heinrich and Alfred – ran the renowned department store of their name on the Stephansplatz, opposite the cathedral. The fourth, Carl Julius, was a famed professor of pathology at the University of Vienna.
Heinrich began to collect objects at an early age, and by the turn of the century, in his mid-thirties, he owned one of the finest collections of 18thcentury porcelain in the city. Photographs taken in his apartment, above the family business, showed objects neatly arranged in elegant vitrines. By 1938, the collection included some 200 objects.
On 12 March, German troops occupied Vienna, welcomed by rapturous crowds. They brought with them the Nuremberg race laws, which introduced anti-Semitism into the laws of former Austria. Within weeks, the Rothbergers – assimilated Jews – were in the sights of the Nazis and Governor Arthur SeyssInquart, who is Otto Wächter’s friend and Horst’s godfather. By the end of the year, the collection had been appropriated, with 49 items ending up in the city’s Staatliche Kunstgewerbemuseum.
Heinrich somehow survived, and after the war, from Canada, managed to recover most of the items from the Museum Angewandte Kunst (MAK, or Museum of Applied Arts). Nevertheless, it held on to 20 items, as a ‘donation’ by way of thanks for their safekeeping during the times of horror. Heinrich died in 1953, and half a century would pass before the items were returned to his descendants. It is a number of these pieces that are now being offered by Bonhams in December’s Fine Porcelain Sale in London.
I parse the catalogue, two dozen lots of 18th century snuffboxes and figurines and other such items. Several catch my eye. A food warmer, with figures in Polish-style costume. A bourdalou – a fine lady’s pisspot – decorated with putti, monkeys and oriental flowers. A boxed coffee service. A chocolate drinking cup. A cup and saucer, with a Napoleonic scene and 1809 decree (I’ll take my law wherever I can get it).
One item jumps out, however, in a lumbering sort of way: a tusked white porcelain elephant, trunk extended, ears low, rippling with muscles. How content he seems, this ancient pachyderm! He was born around 1750, in Vienna, but where or how is not known.
Nor is it clear if it is African or Asian, but if the latter, as it appears, he is male, as only they have the ivories.
He seems rather short, just 23cm high. Sebastian Kuhn of Bonhams informs me, however, that this is huge for a porcelain figure of this time, a feat of human ingenuity that is beyond the extraordinary.
The circumstances of his making, by hand, first a model in clay or wood from which a mould is made, in various pieces – a leg, a body, a head, a trunk… – with each fired individually and then somehow, almost magically and invisibly, brought together, the sum so much more alive than the parts. The technical difficulties are immense, I am told. Nothing is known of the first century and a half of his life, although it is rumoured that royalty may be involved, a commission for an Esterházy prince, perhaps. By 1902, he resides with Heinrich on the Stephansplatz, on the ground floor of a vitrine, nestled between silver tankards and other porcelain objects.
From March to May 1904, he takes a short holiday at the k.k. Ősterreichisches Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, on the Stubenring, just ten minutes away. He is part of a fabulous exhibit, the Ausstellung von Alt-Wiener Porzellan, bringing glory to Austria’s porcelain manufacturers.
In November 1938, the door to the vitrine is sealed. His Jewish owner may look but not touch or move him.
On 15 May 1939, he is Aryanised, sold to a new owner, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. He fetches 1,000 Reichmarks, about £90, more than nothing but still a gross undervaluation.
Eight miserable years later, after the war, Heinrich is persuaded to ‘donate’ the White Elephant to the Museum. The elephant is put on public display, and is inventoried as Ke 7523.28975.
What else is there to know about White Elephant? He has a birthmark – a shield in underglaze blue, painted with red – on his belly. One of his toes is badly chipped, and minor chips intrude on his other toes, and even his left ear. Over a long life, these are minor ailments. Having lived through six Archdukes and Archduchesses of the Holy Roman Empire, four Austrian Emperors, twenty-five Austrian Chancellors and three American Presidents, he remains perfect.
He is a survivor. In fact, there remain only three Viennese porcelain elephants from that period. Compared to the other two, it might be said that he cuts a somewhat solitary figure, without clothing or decoration. One of his remaining contemporaries resides in New York at the Frick, doubling up as a dispenser of Tokay wine. The other, its sibling (both are products of Vienna’s Imperial Porcelain Manufactory), lives in St Petersburg at the State Hermitage Museum, a colourful character, ridden by a figure of Bacchus and sharing his home with eight dancing figures.
On and on they will go, one hopes. In the meantime, as a result of an interview I gave about The Ratline in Sydney, a generous Australian TV company has offered to meet the exorbitant cost of sending the Villa Mendl china service from Horst’s home to the descendants Below A pair of Frankenthal figures of dancers, c.1766 Estimate: £3,000 - 5,000 ($4,000 - 7,000) Left The same figures on display in Heinrich’s apartment Right The three Rothberger brothers at their home in Vienna of the Mendl family in New South Wales. And, in application of the Six Degrees of Separation thesis, I discover that it was none other than Otto Wächter who, in April 1938, removed Heinrich’s brother Carl Julius from his academic position at the University of Vienna.
White elephant, small world.
Philippe Sands is author of The Ratline (2020).
Thanks to Bonhams.