Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch are waiting for Berlin to decide whether it can house their collection of Surrealist art, with paintings by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Joan Miro.
Berlin’s museums currently have no space for the gift. Plans to move the Old Masters to make way for 20th-century paintings sparked online petitions and furious newspaper columns earlier this year. The city’s museum authorities were forced to reconsider. They plan to publish a report weighing the alternatives in the first half of 2013.
For now, the fruits of nearly 50 years’ collecting hang on the walls of the couple’s spacious modern villa in a western Berlin suburb. In the airy living room, a brown Miro overlooks the low table at which Ulla Pietzsch, blond and petite, offers coffee and dainty iced cakes in pink, yellow, beige and chocolate. A metal Max Ernst sculpture dangles above us.
“I am optimistic,” said Heiner Pietzsch, a fit 82-year-old in a charcoal pinstriped suit with an open collared shirt. “They are all politicians, and politicians find it difficult to reject a gift like that. If they don’t find a space, we will withdraw our offer, but I don’t think that will happen.”
The Pietzsch couple lent their collection, estimated to be worth at least 150 million euros (nearly $200 million), to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for an exhibition that drew almost 200,000 visitors in 2009. They have since agreed to donate it to Berlin after their deaths, on condition it is on permanent display.
“As we were growing older, we started thinking about what should happen,” Pietzsch said. “We have pictures from almost every artist active in surrealism, so it would be a shame if the collection was broken up.”
The exhibition was a test of Berlin public interest, said Pietzsch, who made his money trading plastics and investing in companies. A hint of a Saxon accent betrays his Dresden roots.
“I said to my wife, if there are only 20,000 or 30,000 visitors, then we can say it’s not worth it for Berlin,” Pietzsch said. “There were 200,000, so we said O.K., we’ll talk to the Nationalgalerie. That is how the decision to donate the collection came about.”
It’s probable the Pietzsch gift will force Berlin to set a timetable for constructing a new museum for the Old Masters near Museum Island, a UNESCO world heritage site whose treasures include the Pergamon Altar and Nefertiti’s bust. That would clear the Gemaeldegalerie at Potsdamer Platz for 20th-century art, a solution Heiner Pietzsch said he favors.
At present, the only space for 20th-century art is the metal and glass Neue Nationalgalerie, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It’s too small to display all of Berlin’s vast collection of Expressionist and pre-World War II art, let alone the Pietzsch collection.
The Pietzsch couple purchased their first artwork, by the East German painter Gerhard Altenbourg, in 1964. As well as the Surrealists, they own works on paper by U.S. abstract expressionists including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. A Picasso is currently on loan to the Guggenheim in New York.
Berlin’s museum collections have few such works because money for acquisitions was scant after World War II.
“Berlin is lacking a museum for the 20th century,” Pietzsch said. “We absolutely must have one. And our collection would cover the years from 1930 to 1945 very well.”
Heiner Pietzsch said each painting has a story to tell. I ask about the Miro, perhaps the most important painting in the collection as one of the artist’s first abstract, Surrealist works. The Pietzsch pair saw the painting on sale at a dealer in New York while they were in town for a Miro retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1987, he recounted.
“We wanted to buy the picture but it gained in price enormously overnight -- it doubled -- so we decided not to,” Pietzsch said. “We went through the exhibition several times, and I said to my wife: ‘None of the pictures here are better than that one.’ And my wife said ‘Well then, just buy it.’
“It was a lot of money for us in those days,” he said. “Now we’re very happy to have it.”
Pietzsch said he has received many “extraordinary” offers for a Frida Kahlo self-portrait on the wall of the dining room. Ulla Pietzsch said she would never part with it, and once joked to a friend that she wanted to be buried with it.
“He believed me and nearly fell off his chair in horror,” she says with a mischievous laugh.
The couple hopes the decision will be swift, and the museum will be built quickly. If it’s ready in their lifetimes, they would make their donation earlier, they said.
“The contract is for after our deaths,” Heiner Pietzsch said. “Still it would be a dream for me to see the completed museum of the 20th century with our art, and all the other art too. But the decision has to be made first.”
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