George Economou, the Greek shipping tycoon and art collector, has thwarted efforts by the city of Berlin and two state museums to inscribe his collection of 524 prints by Otto Dix—almost all of the artist’s graphic output—on Germany’s national heritage list, which is updated by the country’s 16 states. Had the collection gone on the list, none of the works could have left Germany without a permit.
The collection was started by the gallery owners Joseph and Karl Nierendorf, with Dix’s help, in the 1920s. It includes the artist’s 1924 series “Der Krieg” (the war), 51 etchings of harrowing scenes from the First World War, as well as unique artist’s proofs. After Joseph Nierendorf’s death, his son-in-law Florian Karsch, who compiled a catalogue raisonné of Dix’s printed works, expanded the collection. Karsch offered to donate the works to the Berlinische Galerie, but when the Berlin government sued him over the gift tax, he sold the collection to Economou in 2010 instead.
The Athens-based collector consigned the works that year to the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich on a ten-year loan. However, it emerged last year that the museum backed a campaign, started by the Berlin Senate Chancellery in 2006 and supported by the Berlinische Galerie, to include the collection in Germany’s national heritage list.
The museum argued that parts of “this precious collection, especially the unique artist’s proofs, should be protected from export. Given the historical dimension of the Karsch/Nierendorf collection, it seemed to us that this step, which is not very common for prints, was… one that was worth considering.”
Hannes Hartung, Economou’s lawyer, says that the listing would have been “nothing short of an expropriation of a foreign collector’s property”. He says: “When something is on the list, you can’t do anything with it. Even to exhibit abroad is difficult.” Economou petitioned the Bavarian ministry of culture, arguing that his collection did not fit the list’s criteria: namely, that multiple prints were not unique works of art; that the collection was not one person’s but formed by many; and that the list does not include any other Expressionist prints.
Economou terminated the loan agreement with the museum on the grounds that its application to list the collection was a “breach of trust” and that the museum failed to fulfil its commitment to research and exhibit the collection. Indeed, when Economou moved the works from the museum to Frankfurt in 2014, they were still in their original packing. Michael Semff, the director of the museum, says it had been “clearly agreed” with Economou that a scholarly review of the Dix collection could not happen immediately and that an exhibition and symposium had always been planned for 2015 or 2016. Furthermore, he says, “the subject of cultural property protection was never mentioned in our conversations”, and he therefore believes that no trust was broken.
The collection’s move to Frankfurt meant that the decision over the case transferred from the Bavarian ministry to the ministry of culture in Hessen. Last December, Hessen decided not to include the collection on the heritage list, following the unanimous recommendation of the expert panel of the state of Hessen. Boris Rhein, Hessen’s minister of culture, wrote to Hannes Hartung, saying: “I would be pleased if the collection could be preserved as a whole and could be made accessible to a wide public.” The Economou Collection, the collector’s private museum in Athens, is currently discussing the future of the collection of prints.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Germany loses out to Greek collector over Otto Dix prints'