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The Collectors of Berlin

15 June 2015

From spy cameras to modern art, vintage furniture to haute couture, a visit to Germany’s capital is a chance to purchase a history full of forgotten stories and secret meaning

Over the course of one thousand years a city can reveal a hoard of historical wealth. Cultural elements of interest, importance and value become scattered along the proverbial trail of time. Embroidered in that rich fabric is the narrative of its location, its people and the essence of its multifarious character. Yet buried deep within some cities, society’s apex achievements and the nadir of its lowest lamentations can be unearthed too.

Moving ever forward, the energetic German capital takes all these things in its stride, remembers them and gets on with it all rather magnificently. Empires, world wars, iron curtains, jubilant reunification – rarely is a city’s distant past so intertwined with the darkest anecdotes of its more recent memory and, more seldom still, with the hip, cutting edge of modern consciousness. Welcome to Berlin, the dynamic modern metropolis filled to the brim with compelling artefacts while also helming the vanguard of contemporary art and design. A collector’s jackpot.

It therefore comes as no surprise that many people love to take a physical part of that wealth back home with them. It is perhaps even more poignant that some of the world’s most interesting and avid collectors live within the city and offer those riches themselves for the public to see.

Berlin teems with a cross section of local, regional and global exhibits. From communist era memorabilia hawked along the well-worn tourist trail, to exclusive ateliers presenting their wares in seemingly hidden art-nouveau loft apartments. The city not only provides opportunities for the traveller to see and procure its culture, it often begs them to become immersed in it.

The sprawling flea markets found in many central locations around the city are perhaps the perfect point of departure to scratch the surface of what is on offer. The Sunday market at the Mauerpark – which translates to ‘wall park’ – is in many ways a microcosm of a newer Berlin. Lying directly adjacent to parts of the former wall and the notorious ‘death strip’, locals and tourists flock to peruse the many stalls of curiosities, rare vinyl music collections, hand-made fashion and accessories.

Of unique interest is the abundance of GDR memorabilia during the period when the wall divided the city between 1961 and 1989. The Germans have even created their own term for nostalgia from the former East Germany. “Ostalgie”, a portmanteau derived from the German words for “east” and “nostalgia”, can describe various aspects of life from the era.

One of the most recognisable remnants for tourists is the Ampelmännchen, a small traffic symbol for pedestrian crossings of a man walking. Items on sale vary from television sets and ceiling lamps, to spectacle frames and military costumes. Situated in the first district to become gentrified after the fall of the wall, Prenzlauer Berg, the market gained traction with a fresh demographic and is now extremely busy every week. The flea markets of Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain and also Fehrbelliner Platz in the West, with its Kunstmeile or ‘art mile’, are also worth seeking out.

Venturing inside from the markets and the street stalls, Berlin’s own greatest collections are housed within some of its most impressive public buildings. The wonders of the Pergamon Museum are ostensibly inexhaustible and their value likewise incalculable. The imposing Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon is a symbolic show of the museum’s archaeological treasures from antiquity. It is, however, the city’s private collections that are truly unique and offer an alternative window into both the city’s attitudes and its zeitgeist.

In Mitte, the most central borough of the city, and only a 15-minute walk over the River Spree from the Pergamon, stands a converted Nazi air-raid shelter of monolithic proportions. Housed inside is the Sammlung Boros, the private contemporary art collection of Christian and Karen Boros. Specifically reimagined and renovated to be both home and public space, the building’s history and appearance demand thoughtful attention.

Extensive architectural changes were required to realise the vision of such an undertaking and have been done so with breathtaking precision. It is little wonder so many art enthusiasts take guided tours through the 3,000 square metres of exhibition space featuring post-1990 visual art and installation. The couple lives in a glass walled penthouse above and if the architecture was not inspiration enough, the collection in the bunker below is filled with a star cast of contemporary art’s biggest names. Featured in the current curated exhibition are the highly collectible works by acclaimed artists such as Ai Weiwei (China) and Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany). Tours are by appointment only.

Also located nearby is another gem of the Berlin collector’s landscape; the collection of Erika Hoffmann. The Sammlung Hoffmann, started in 1968 for the “inspiration and stimulation” of living with contemporary art, follows in a similar vein and conducts 90-minute guided tours on Saturdays. These are also by appointment only as the tour is quite literally through her home.

For those seeking a collection stretching beyond the confines of the contemporary, the Me Collectors Room Berlin / Stiftung Olbricht on Auguststraße, has a permanent “Wunderkammer”, a cabinet of wonder and curiosities, that features pieces dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque. Everyday objects such as postage stamps and toys are displayed alongside the art from various eras.

The entire collection was founded by Thomas Olbricht, heir to Germany’s Wella hair care estate, and also offers part of its space and infrastructure for other major international collections to exhibit. Works from private collectors are rotated with new exhibitions curated throughout the year featuring hundreds of distinguished artists.

There are several recognised gallery precincts in Berlin, but that of Mitte wedged between Torstraße and the Spree and near to the private collections, is perhaps the densest. It’s a logical step to explore the neighbourhood’s swathe of renowned commercial contemporary art galleries. Easily missed on Linienstrasse, down a courtyard without any clear entrance signage, the anonymity of Neugerriemschneider purveys the expectation that art-loving visitors should know who they are.

The sleek interior exhibits a Who’s Who of the art world such as Olafur Eliasson (Denmark), known for transporting tons of glacier ice from Iceland for a solo exhibition. Equally impressive is the Berlin branch of Sprüth Magers owned by influential gallerist duo Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers. Absorbing visitors in the impressive spaces of a former auditorium the gallery is more like a museum. Its polished concrete floors and stark white walls play host to an innovative exhibition programme for the well-heeled art collector with the likes of Cindy Sherman (USA) and Thomas Demand (Germany).

South of the river and beneath the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent to Central or Hyde Park, lies the art and design hotspot surrounding Potsdamer Straße. With a mixture of both heavyweight and emerging galleries and stores, the area has risen to prominence over the last half decade. In terms of the contemporary, Arndt, representing famed duo Gilbert & George and also with a focus on South-East Asian art, highlights the city’s connection to Europe and the rest of the world.

Just over the Landwehrkanal and in the direction of Checkpoint Charlie another major force in Berlin’s art world, Johann König, represents 27 artists, many of whom are in extreme demand. The gallery also uses the concrete brutalist interior of St.Agnes church in Kreuzberg as a project space. Berlin really ups the ante in terms of presenting and selling art.

Within a building adjacent to Potsdamer Straße, the pearly white design and fashion emporium of Andreas Murkudis can be found, showcasing high-end collectible fashion. Yohji Yamamoto and Dries Van Noten are just two of the many collectible names on offer with a price point to match. Just footsteps away from the showroom is the atelier and store of one of the world’s most highly regarded milliners, Fiona Bennett, featuring hats praised by Vivienne Westwood and Lady Gaga no less.

For avant-garde menswear, a journey to Darklands near the central train station Berlin Hauptbahnhof, is worth making. The cavernous concrete space lined with racks of dark hued clothing might convince you that Berlin is indeed the new black. The city, it seems, has a penchant to impress with its use of alternative and sometimes bleak spaces – an allusion to its past and perhaps its vision of the future. Designer, Karl Lagerfeld, is documented as having purchased 60 items in the store.

The East, during the communist era, had its own vision of the future. The time during which the city was first divided and the wall erected, dovetailed neatly with the latter part of mid-century design and had a direct channel from the Bauhaus movement. Soviet influence and the need to design, craft and produce almost everything within its own borders created some interesting results.

A contender for the most grandiose is Karl-Marx Allee, the classic socialist boulevard lined ominously with eight-storey wedding-cake style architecture, stretching from the eastern border of Mitte through Friedrichshain. It is fitting then, that on the ground floor of one of these buildings is the showroom of Original in Berlin, a furniture store with a large collection of international pieces from and inspired by the era.

Over 350 square metres of Scandinavian, American and varied European designs coalesce into a fantastic snapshot of vintage modern. Danish Kofod-Larsen sideboards and original Eames chairs a staple. Nearby in a similar building is the likewise inspired Coroto, a store with a more exotic flavour, providing furniture and an intriguing contrast to northern winters and socialist architecture with “vintage furniture and tropical living”.

In fact, across Berlin, in its many second hand stores and flea markets, there are countless opportunities to chance upon authentic and evocative pieces of furniture, period fittings and other assorted homewares. Sourced from Germany and abroad, each piece has its own forgotten story and secret meaning. The phrase, “if these walls could talk”, is most poignant in Berlin.

The Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, were notorious for spying on the private lives of its citizens. The more obscure items and technological gadgets they left behind have become prizes for the most dedicated collectors. Spy cameras, listening devices and other modified or purpose built equipment are listed in some of the world’s most renowned auction houses and can fetch hefty prices. Examples of these are on permanent display at the Stasi Museum just north of Frankfurter Allee, the continuation of Karl-Marx Allee.

From curious flea market finds and haute couture fashion, to avant-garde fine art purchases and classic vintage furniture pieces, Berlin allows visitors to excavate both distant and recent history. It offers a sense of time travel through collectible objects that carry both value and countless stories. The city also has its finger firmly on the pulse of what is happening now and that makes it a paradise for the discerning collector wishing to tap into that energy.

Words: Rachael Vance / Images: Zoe Noble

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