The Invisible Collection
Two stations after Dresden an elderly gentleman got into our compartment, passed the time of day civilly and then, looking up, expressly nodded to me as if I were an old acquaintance. At first I couldn’t remember him; however, as soon as he mentioned his name, with a slight smile, I recollected him at once as one of the most highly regarded art dealers in Berlin. In peacetime I had often viewed and bought old books and autograph manuscripts from him. We talked of nothing much for a while, but suddenly and abruptly he said: “I must tell you where I’ve just come from—this is the story of about the strangest thing that I’ve ever encountered, old art dealer that I am, in the thirty-seven years I’ve been practising my profession.” And the story as he told it follows.
You probably know for yourself what it’s like in the art trade these days, since the value of money started evaporating like gas; all of a sudden people who have just made their fortunes have discovered a taste for Gothic Madonnas, and incunabula, old engravings and pictures. You can’t conjure up enough such things to satisfy them—why, you have to be careful they don’t clear out your house and home. They’d happily buy the cufflinks from your sleeves and the lamp from your desk. It’s getting harder and harder to find new wares all the time—forgive me for suddenly describing as wares items that, to the likes of you and me, usually mean something to be revered—but these philistines have accustomed even me to regard a wonderful Venetian incunabulum only as if it were a coat costing such-and-such a sum in dollars, and a drawing by Guercino as the embodiment of a few hundred franc notes. There’s no resisting the insistent urging of those who are suddenly mad to buy art. So I was right out of stock again overnight, and I felt like putting up the shutters, I was so ashamed of seeing our old business that my father took over from my grandfather with nothing for sale but wretched trash, stuff that in the past no street trader in the north would have bothered even to put on his cart.
In this awkward situation, the idea of consulting our old business records occurred to me, to look up former customers from whom I might be able to get a few items if they happened to have duplicates. A list of old customers is always something of a graveyard, especially in times like the present, and it did not really tell me much: most of those who had bought from us in the past had long ago had to get rid of their possessions in auction sales, or had died, and I could not hope for much from the few who remained. But then I suddenly came upon a bundle of letters from a man who was probably our oldest customer, and who had surfaced from my memory only because after 1914 and the outbreak of the World War, he had never turned to us with any orders or queries again. The correspondence—and I really am not exaggerating!—went back over almost sixty years; he had bought from my father and my grandfather, yet I could not remember him ever coming into our premises in the thirty-seven years of my personal involvement with the family business. Everything suggested that he must have been a strange, old-fashioned oddity, one of that lost generation of Germans shown in the paintings and graphic art of such artists as Menzel and Spitzweg, who survived here and there as rare phenomena in little provincial towns until just before our own times. His letters were pure calligraphy, neatly written, the items he was ordering underlined in red ink, with a ruler, and he always wrote out the sum of money involved in words as well as figures, so that there could be no mistake. That, as well as his exclusive use of blank flyleaves from books as writing paper and old, reused envelopes, indicated the petty mind and fanatical thrift of a hopeless provincial. These remarkable documents were signed not only with his name but with the elaborate title: Forestry and Economic Councilor, retd; Lieutenant, retd; Holder of the Iron Cross First Class. Being a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, he must therefore, if still alive, be at least eighty. However, as a collector of old examples of graphic art this ridiculously thrifty oddity showed unusual acumen, wide knowledge and excellent taste. As I slowly put together his orders from us over almost sixty years, the first of them still paid for in silver groschen, I realized that in the days when you could still buy a stack of the finest German woodcuts for a taler, this little provincial must have been assembling a collection of engravings that would probably show to great advantage beside those so loudly praised by the nouveaux riches. For what he had bought from us alone in orders costing him a few marks and pfennigs represented astonishing value today, and in addition it could be expected that his purchases at auction sales had been acquired equally inexpensively.
Although we had had no further orders from him since 1914, I was too familiar with all that went on in the art trade to have missed noticing the auction or private sale of such a collection. In that case, our unusual customer must either be still alive, or the collection was in the hands of his heirs.
The case interested me, and on the next day, that’s to say yesterday evening, I set off for one of the most provincial towns in Saxony; and as I strolled along the main street from the station it seemed to me impossible that here, in the middle of these undistinguished little houses with their tasteless contents, a man could live who owned some of the finest prints of Rembrandt’s etchings, as well as engravings by Dürer and Mantegna in such a perfectly complete state. To my surprise, however, when I asked at the post office if a forestry or economic councilor of his name lived here, I discovered that the old gentleman really was still alive, and in the middle of the morning I set off on my way to him—with my heart, I confess, beating rather faster.
I had no difficulty in finding his apartment. It was on the second floor of one of those cheaply built provincial buildings that might have been hastily constructed by some builder on spec in the 1860s. A master tailor lived on the first floor, to the left on the second floor I saw the shiny nameplate of a civil servant in the post office, and on the right, at last, a porcelain panel bearing the name of the Forestry and Economic Councilor. When I tentatively rang the bell, a very old white-haired woman wearing a clean little black cap immediately answered it. I gave her my card and asked if I might speak to the Forestry Councilor. Surprised, and with a touch of suspicion, she looked first at me and then at the card; a visitor from the outside world seemed to be an unusual event in this little town at the back of beyond and this old-fashioned building. But she asked me in friendly tones to wait, took my card and went into the room beyond the front door; I heard her whispering quietly, and then, suddenly, a loud male voice. “Oh, Herr R. from Berlin, from the great antiques dealers there … bring him in, bring him in, I’ll be very glad to meet him!” And the little old lady came tripping out to me again and asked me into the living room.
I took off my coat and followed her. In the middle of the modest little room an old but still-vigorous man stood erect. He had a bushy moustache and wore a frogged, semi-military casual jacket, and he was holding out both hands in heartfelt welcome. But this gesture, unmistakably one of happy and spontaneous greeting, contrasted with a curious rigidity in the way he held himself. He did not come a step closer to me, and I was obliged—feeling slightly alienated—to approach him myself in order to take his hand. As I was about to grasp it, however, the way he held both hands out horizontally, not moving them, told me that they were not searching for my own but expecting mine to find them. And the next moment I understood it all: this man was blind.
Even from my childhood I had always been uncomfortable facing someone blind; I was never able to fend off a certain shame and embarrassment in sensing that the blind person was entirely alive and knowing, at the same time, that he did not experience our meeting in the same way as I did. Now, yet again, I had to overcome my initial shock at seeing those dead eyes, staring fixedly into space under bushy white brows. However, the blind man himself did not leave me feeling awkward for long; as soon as my hand touched his he shook it powerfully, and repeated his welcome with strong and pleasingly heartfelt emotion. “A rare visitor,” he said, smiling broadly at me, “really, it’s a miracle, one of the great Berlin antiques dealers making his way to our little town … however, it behoves us to be careful when one of those gentlemen boards the train. Where I come from, we always say: keep your gates and your purses closed when the gypsies are in town … yes, yes, I can guess why you seek me out … business is going badly these days in our poor country; now that our unhappy land of Germany’s come down in the world, there are no buyers left, so the great gentlemen of the art world think of their old customers and go in search of those little lambs. But I’m afraid you won’t have much luck here, we poor old retired folk are glad if we can put a meal on the table. We can’t match the crazy prices you ask these days … the likes of us are finished with all that for ever.”
I told him at once that he had misunderstood me; I had not come to sell him anything, I just happened to be in this neighborhood, and didn’t want to miss my chance of calling on him, as a customer of our house over many years, and paying my respects to one of the greatest collectors in Germany. As soon as I said, “one of the greatest collectors in Germany,” a remarkable change came over the old man’s face. He was still standing upright and rigid in the middle of the room, but now there was an expression of sudden brightness and deep pride in his attitude. He turned towards the place where he thought his wife was, as if to say, “Did you hear that?” and his voice as he then turned to me was full of delight, with not a trace of the brusque, military tone in which he had spoken just now; instead it was soft, positively tender.
“That’s really very, very good of you … and you will find you have not come here in vain. You shall see something that can’t be seen every day, even in the grandeur of Berlin … a few pieces as fine as any in the Albertina in Vienna or in that damn city of Paris … yes, if a man collects for sixty years he comes upon all kinds of things that aren’t to be found on every street corner. Luise, give me the key to the cupboard, please!”
But now something unexpected happened. The little old lady standing beside him, listening courteously and with smiling, quietly attentive friendliness to our conversation, suddenly raised both hands to me in an imploring gesture, at the same time shaking her head vigorously, a sign that at first I failed to understand.
Only then did she go over to her husband and lightly laid both hands on his shoulder. “Oh, Herwarth,” she admonished him, “you haven’t even asked the gentleman if he has time to spare to look at your collection. It’s nearly lunchtime, and after lunch you must rest for an hour, you know the doctor expressly said so. Wouldn’t it be better to show our visitor your things after lunch, and Annemarie will be here as well then, she understands it all much better than I do, she can help you!”
And once again, as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she repeated that urgently pleading gesture as if over her husband’s head, leaving him unaware of it. Now I understood her. I could tell that she wanted me to decline an immediate viewing, and I quickly invented a lunch engagement. It would be a pleasure and an honor to be allowed to see his collection, I said, but it wouldn’t be possible for me to do so before three in the afternoon. Then, however, I would happily come back here.
Cross as a child whose favorite toy has been taken away, the old man made a petulant gesture. “Oh, of course,” he grumbled, “those Berlin gentlemen never have time for anything. But today you’ll have to find the time, because it’s not just three or five good pieces I have, there are twenty-seven portfolios, one for each master of the graphic arts, and all of them full. So come back at three, but mind you’re punctual or we’ll never get through the whole collection.”
Once again he put out his hand into the air, in my direction. “I warn you, you may like it, or you may be jealous. And the more jealous you are the better I’ll be pleased. That’s collectors for you: we want it all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else!” And once again he shook my hand vigorously.
The little old lady accompanied me to the door. I had noticed a certain discomfort in her all this time, an expression of anxious embarrassment. But now, just before we reached the way out, she stammered in a low voice, “Could you … could you … could my daughter Annemarie join you before you come back to us? That would be better for … for various reasons … I expect you are lunching at the hotel?”
“Certainly, and I will be delighted to meet your daughter first. It will be a pleasure,” I said.
And sure enough, an hour later when I had just finished my lunch in the little restaurant of the hotel on the market square, a lady not in her first youth, simply dressed, came in and looked enquiringly around. I went up to her, introduced myself and said I was ready to set out with her at once to see the collection. However, with a sudden blush and the same confused embarrassment that her mother had shown, she asked if she could have a few words with me first. I saw at once that this was difficult for her. Whenever she was bringing herself to say something, that restless blush rose in her face, and her hand fidgeted with her dress. At last she began, hesitantly, overcome by confusion again and again.
“My mother has sent me to see you … she told me all about it, and … and we have a request to make. You see, we would like to inform you, before you go back to see my father … of course Father will want to show you his collection, and the collection … the collection, well, it isn’t entirely complete any more … there are several items missing … indeed, I’m afraid quite a number are missing …”
She had to catch her breath again, and then she suddenly looked at me and said, hastily: “I must speak to you perfectly frankly … you know what these times are like, I’m sure you’ll understand. After the outbreak of war Father went blind. His vision had been disturbed quite often before, but then all the agitation robbed him of his eyesight entirely. You see, even though he was seventy-six at the time he wanted to go to France with the army, and when the army didn’t advance at once, as it had in 1870, he was dreadfully upset, and his sight went downhill at terrifying speed. Otherwise he’s still hale and hearty: until recently he could walk for hours and even go hunting, his favorite sport. But now he can’t take long walks, and the only pleasure he has left is his collection. He looks at it every day … that’s to say, he can’t see it, he can’t see anything now, but he gets all the portfolios out so that he can at least touch the items in them, one by one, always in the same order; he’s known their order by heart for decades. Nothing else interests him these days, and I always have to read the accounts of all the auction sales in the newspaper to him. The higher the prices he hears about the happier he is, because … this is the worst of it, Father doesn’t understand about prices nowadays … he doesn’t know that we’ve lost everything, and his pension will keep us for only two days in the month … in addition, my sister’s husband fell in the war, leaving her with four small children. But Father has no idea of the material difficulties we’re in. At first we saved hard, even more than before, but that didn’t help. Then we began selling things—we didn’t touch his beloved collection, of course, we sold the little jewellery we had, but dear God, what did that amount to? After all, for sixty years Father had spent every pfennig he could spare on his prints alone. And one day there was nothing for us to sell, we didn’t know what to do, and then … then Mother and I sold one of the prints. Father would never have allowed it, after all, he doesn’t know how badly off we are, how hard it is to buy a little food on the black market, he doesn’t even know that we lost the war, and Alsace and Lorraine are part of France now, we don’t read those things to him when they appear in the paper, so that he won’t get upset.
“It was a very valuable item that we sold, a Rembrandt etching. The dealer offered us many, many thousands of marks for it, and we hoped that would provide for us for years. But you know how money melts away these days … we had deposited most of it in the bank, but two months later it was all gone. So we had to sell another work, and then another, and the dealer was always so late sending the money that it was already devalued when it arrived. Then we tried auctions, but there too we were cheated, although the prices were in millions … by the time the millions reached us they were nothing but worthless paper. And so gradually the best of his collection left us, except for a few good items, just so that we could lead the most frugal of lives, and Father has no idea of it.
“That’s why my mother was so alarmed when you came today—because if he opens the portfolios and shows them to you, it will all come out … you see, we put reprints or similar sheets of paper in the old mounts instead of the prints we had sold, so that he wouldn’t notice when he touched them. If he can only touch them and enumerate them (he remembers their order of arrangement perfectly), he feels just the same joy as when he could see them in the past with his own eyes. There’s no one else in this town whom Father would think worthy of seeing his treasures … and he loves every single print so fanatically that I think his heart would break if he guessed that they all passed out of his hands long ago. You are the first he has invited to see them in all these years, since the death of the former head of the engravings department in the Dresden gallery—he meant to show his portfolios to him. So I beg you …”
And suddenly the ageing woman raised her hands, and tears gleamed in her eyes.
“ …We beg you … don’t make him unhappy … don’t make us all unhappy … don’t destroy his last illusion, help us to make him believe that all the prints he will describe to you are still there … he wouldn’t survive it if he only suspected. Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today … today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please … I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”
My account of her plea cannot express the deep distress with which she told me all this. My God—as a dealer I have seen many such people despicably robbed, infamously deceived by the inflation, people who were persuaded to part with their most precious family heirlooms for the price of a sandwich—but here Fate added a touch of its own, one that particularly moved me. Of course I promised her to keep the secret and do my best.
So we went back to the apartment together—on the way, still full of my bitter feelings, I heard about the trifling amounts that these poor women, who knew nothing of the subject, had been paid, but that only confirmed me in my decision to help them as well as I could. We went up the stairs, and as soon as we opened the door we heard the old man’s cheerfully hearty voice from the living room. “Come in, come in!” With a blind man’s keen hearing, he must have heard our footsteps as we climbed the stairs.
“Herwarth hasn’t been able to sleep at all, he is so impatient to show you his treasures,” said the little old lady, smiling. A single glance at her daughter had already set her mind at rest: I would not give them away. Piles of portfolios were arranged on the table, waiting for us, and as soon as the blind man felt my hand he took my arm, without further greeting, and pressed me down into an armchair.
“There, now let’s begin at once—there’s a great deal to see, and I know you gentlemen from Berlin never have much time. The first portfolio is devoted to that great master Dürer and, as you’ll see for yourself, pretty well complete—each of my prints finer than the last. Well, you can judge for yourself, look at this one!” he said, opening the portfolio at the first sheet it contained. “There—the Great Horse!”
And now, with the tender caution one would employ in handling something fragile, his fingertips touching it very lightly to avoid wear and tear, he took out of the folio a mount framing a blank, yellowed sheet of paper, and held the worthless scrap out in front of him with enthusiasm. He looked at it for several minutes, without of course really seeing it, but in his outstretched hand he held the empty sheet up level with his eyes, his expression ecstatic, his whole face magically expressing the intent gesture of a man looking at a fine work. And as his dead pupils stared at it—was it a reflection from the paper, or a glow coming from within him?—a knowledgeable light came into his eyes, a brightness borrowed from what he thought he saw.
“There,” he said proudly, “did you ever see a finer print? Every detail stands out so sharp and clear—I’ve looked at it beside the Dresden copy, which was flat and lifeless by comparison. And as for its provenance! There—” and he turned the sheet over and pointed to certain places on the back, which was also blank, so that I instinctively looked at it as if the marks he imagined were really there after all—“there you see the stamp of the Nagler collection, here the stamps of Remy and Esdaile; I dare say the illustrious collectors who owned this print before me never guessed that it would end up in this little room some day.”
A cold shudder ran down my back as the old man, knowing nothing of what had happened, praised an entirely blank sheet of paper to the skies; and it was a strange sight to see him pointing his finger, knowing the right places to the millimetre, to where the invisible collectors’ stamps that existed only in his imagination would have been. My throat constricted with the horror of it, and I didn’t know what to say; but when, in my confusion, I looked at his wife and daughter I saw the old woman’s hands raised pleadingly to me again, as she trembled with emotion. At this I got a grip on myself and began to play my part.
“Extraordinary!” I finally stammered. “A wonderful print.” And at once his entire face glowed with pride. “But that’s nothing to all I still have to show you,” he said triumphantly. “You must see my copy of the Melancholia, or the Passion—there, this one is an illuminated copy, you won’t see such quality in one of those again. Look at this—and again his fingers tenderly moved over an imaginary picture—“that freshness, that warm, grainy tone. All the fine dealers in Berlin, and the doctors who run the museums there, they’d be bowled over.”
And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper or poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe in it.
Only once was the somnambulistic certainty of his enthusiasm as he viewed the collection interrupted, alarmingly, by the danger of waking to reality; in speaking of his copy of Rembrandt’s Antiope (the print of the etching was a proof and must indeed have been inestimably valuable), he had once again been praising the sharpness of the print, and as he did so his nervously clairvoyant fingers lovingly followed the line of it, but his ultra-sensitive nerves of touch failed to feel an indentation that he expected on the blank sheet. The suggestion of a shadow descended on his brow. His voice became confused. “But surely … surely this is the Antiope?” he murmured, with some awkwardness, whereupon I immediately summoned up all my powers, quickly took the mounted sheet from his hands, and enthusiastically described the etching, which I myself knew well, in every detail. The tension in the blind man’s expression relaxed again. And the more I praised the merits of the collection, the more did a jovial warmth bloom in that gnarled old man’s face, a simple depth of feeling.
“Here’s someone who understands these things for once,” he rejoiced, turning triumphantly to his family. “At last, at long last a man who can tell you what my prints are worth. You’ve always been so cross with me for putting all the money I had to spare into my collection, that’s the truth of it: over sixty years no beer, no wine, no tobacco, no travelling, no visits to the theatre, no books—I was always saving and saving for these prints. But one day, when I’m gone, you’ll see—you two will be rich, richer than anyone in this town, as rich as the richest in Dresden, then for a change you’ll be glad of my folly. However, as long as I live not a single one of these prints leaves the house—they’ll have to carry me out first and only then my collection.”
And as he spoke, his hand passed lovingly over the portfolios that had been emptied of their contents long ago, as if they were living things—I found it terrible, yet at the same time touching, for in all the years of the war I had not seen so perfect and pure an expression of bliss on any German face. Beside him stood the women, looking mysteriously like the female figures in that etching by the German master, who, coming to visit the tomb of the Saviour, stand in front of the vault, broken open and empty, with an expression of fearful awe and at the same time joyous ecstasy. As the women disciples in that picture are radiant with their heavenly presentiment of the Saviour’s closeness, these two ageing, worn, impoverished ladies were irradiated by the childish bliss of the old man’s joy—half laughing, half in tears, it was a sight more moving than any I had ever seen. As for the old man himself, he could not hear enough of my praise, he kept stacking the portfolios up again and turning them, thirstily drinking in every word I said, and so for me it was a refreshing change when at last the deceitful portfolios were pushed aside and, protesting, he had to let the table be cleared for the coffee things. But what was my sense of guilty relief beside the swelling, tumultuous joy and high spirits of a man who seemed to be thirty years younger now! He told a hundred anecdotes of his purchases, his fishing trips in search of them, and rejecting any help tapped again and again on one of the sheets of paper, getting out another and then another print; he was exuberantly drunk as if on wine. When I finally said I must take my leave, he was positively startled, he seemed as upset as a self-willed child, and stamped his foot defiantly: this wouldn’t do, I had hardly seen half his treasures. And the women had a difficult time making him understand, in his obstinate displeasure, that he really couldn’t keep me there any longer or I would miss my train.
When, after desperate resistance, he finally saw the sense of that, and we were saying goodbye, his voice softened. He took both my hands, and his fingers caressed the joints of mine with all the expressiveness conveyed by the touch of a blind man, as if they wanted to know more of me and express more affection than could be put into words. “You have given me the greatest pleasure—at long, long last I have been able to look through my beloved prints again with a connoisseur. But you’ll find that you haven’t come to see me, old and blind as I am, in vain. I promise you here and now, before my wife as my witness, that I will add a clause to my will entrusting the auction of my collection to your old-established house. You shall have the honour of administering these unknown treasures”—and he placed his hand lovingly on the plundered portfolios—“until the day when they go out into the world and are dispersed. Just promise me to draw up a handsome catalogue: it will be my tombstone, and I couldn’t ask for a better memorial.”
I looked at his wife and daughter, who were holding each other close, and sometimes a tremor passed from one to the other, as if they were a single body trembling in united emotion. I myself felt a sense of solemnity in the touching way the old man, unaware of the truth, consigned the invisible and long-gone collection to my care as something precious. Greatly moved, I promised him what I could never perform; once again his dead pupils seemed to light up, and I felt his inner longing to feel me physically; I could tell by the tender, loving pressure of his fingers as they held mine in thanks and a vow.
The women went to the door with me. They dared not speak, for his keen hearing would have picked up every word, but their eyes beamed at me, warm with tears and full of gratitude! Feeling dazed, I made my way down the stairs. I was in fact ashamed of myself; like the angel in the fairy tale I had entered a poor family’s house, I had restored a blind man’s sight, if only for an hour, by helping him with what amounted to a white lie, when in truth I had gone to see him only as a mean-minded dealer hoping to get a few choice items out of someone by cunning. But what I took away with me was more: I had once again felt a sense of pure and lively enthusiasm in a dull, joyless time, a kind of spiritually irradiated ecstasy bent entirely on art, something that people these days seem to have forgotten entirely. And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.
I was already out in the street when I heard an upstairs window open, and my name was called; the old man had not wanted to miss looking with his blind eyes in the direction where he thought I would be standing. He leant so far forwards that the two women had to support him, waved his handkerchief and called, “Bon voyage! ” with the cheerful, fresh voice of a boy. It was an unforgettable moment: the white-haired old man’s happy face up at the window, high above all the morose, driven, busy people in the street, gently elevated from what in truth is our dismal world on the white cloud of a well-meant delusion. And I found myself remembering the old saying—I think it was Goethe’s—“Collectors are happy men.”