Koenigs Collection: An incomparable, encyclopedic collection of drawings

Franz Koenigs, c. 1915-1920, portrait by his father-in-law Leopold von Kalckreuth

In the 1920s the German banker and businessman Franz Wilhelm Koenigs (Kierberg/Brühl 1881-1941) put together a large collection of Old Master drawings that became world- famous for its superb quality. It is now known as the Koenigs Collection out of respect for its creator, who also owned more than 50 paintings.

Koenigs, the fifth of six children born to a Catholic German father and a Lutheran mother of Dutch descent, became a member of the board of the Delbrück Schickler & Co. bank in Berlin in 1913, and in 1920 he was the co-founder and owner of the Rhodius Koenigs Handel-Maatschappij N.V., which provided credit to German companies and was thus also regarded as a bank. It had its seat in the Netherlands (Keizersgracht 117-121, Amsterdam) in order to get around the trade restrictions imposed on Germany by the Allies after the First World War. In 1921 Koenigs also became a director of the Delbrück von der Heydt & Co. bank in Cologne, and also held many non-executive directorships in major companies at home and abroad, including the Hollandsche Buitenland Bank in 1925. He also had a widespread network of contacts in the financial and industrial worlds, as well as relatives in politics and the army, especially in Germany.

In 1922 he was joined by his wife and five young children, who came over from Germany (Cologne). The following year the family moved into a large villa at Florapark 8 in Haarlem. >SOURCE

Koenigs made a fortune in the Netherlands thanks to the favourable economic climate and low taxation in the 1920s, as well as to his keen business sense, and although he too was hit by the worldwide crisis triggered by the Wall Street crash of 1929, he and his company managed to weather the storm.

In addition to drawings, Koenigs bought several dozen paintings by old and modern masters (mainly the Impressionists). Although he acquired his first works of art before moving to Holland (he bought his first Impressionist works during his time in Paris in 1903- 1904), most of his drawings entered the collection in 1921-1931.

One important source of inspiration for his collecting activities was his uncle Felix Koenigs (1846-1900), a banker and director of Delbrück Leo & Co. in Berlin, who played a leading role in the cultural life of the German capital and had a collection of contemporary art which he left in part to the city’s Nationalgalerie and in part to his family. The Koenigssee and the Koenigsallee in a new luxury villa district in Berlin were named after him. In fact, cultural interests were in Franz Koenigs’s blood, for his mother Johanna Bunge (1851-1934) was a gifted amateur artist and musician. On 26 April 1914, in Eddelsen/Hittfeld (near Seevetal below Hamburg), Franz Koenigs married Anna (Mucki) von Kalckreuth (1890-1946), daughter of the German Symbolist artist Count Leopold von Kalckreuth (1855-1928). The couple met in 1910 when Von Kalckreuth painted the portrait of Koenigs’s mother in her Neo-Gothic castle in Sinzig-am-Rhein (between Bonn and Koblenz).

L: Franz and Anna Koenigs, Berlin, c. 1915
R: Franz Koenigs at Florapark 8, Haarlem, c. 1930

“He had the collecting urge very early on, when as a young man in Paris he bought the French paintings and lithographs of Lautrec. He found it such a shame that the museums and printrooms were always closed after his busy working day, and wanted to have something himself that he could always look at.”
(Anna Koenigs, Countess Von Kalckreuth, 1946)

Koenigs was an avid and decisive collector who set himself a clear goal. He wanted to build up an encyclopedic collection that provided the broadest and most complete overview of the development of drawing in Western Europe. He wanted it to be the most important private collection in the world in that respect.

Koenigs was an energetic businessman who travelled widely. He was often in his home city of Cologne, where he was a bank director, and his office there was his contact address and temporary storage facility for the works of art he had bought, and he often visited, even after moving to Haarlem. In 1931 he spent some time in a sanatorium there, recovering from an illness. He contacted local art dealers whenever he visited European capitals, most notably Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid and Vienna, as well as in New York, and they were more than happy to visit him in his hotel, bringing their stock with them. Dealers also got in touch with him when he was abroad, proposing purchases by letter. However many drawings he bought, though, Koenigs was always highly selective.

He often bought extensively at major auctions in the 1920s, and in this he was assisted by the staff of the Paul Cassirer gallery in Amsterdam and by other dealers like Nicolaas (Nic) Beets (1878-1963, the grandson of the well-known Dutch author and poet), who bid for him up to preset limits. Beets also acted for him when he lent 119 drawings (almost half of the 261 works of art in the show) to the major exhibition of Italian art in Dutch collections in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1934. For many years Koenigs was also in regular contact with the well-known collector F.J. (Frits) Lugt (1884-1970) in Maartensdijk and later The Hague in order to arrange which of them would bid for what at auctions, and to buy and exchange drawings and paintings. Koenigs bought many of his works from the dealer Gustav Nebehay in Leipzig, and later in Vienna. He was usually far too busy to attend auctions himself.

‘Now I know why you were in Berlin recently! Best wishes, Huldschinsky’. Franz Koenigs is seated in the middle of the room (second row, behind the man with the glasses) at the Huldschinsky auction at the Cassirer & Helbing premises in Berlin on 10 and 11 May 1928 (newspaper cutting with a handwritten message from the collector Oscar Huldschinsky)

He also profited from the favourable climate for dealing and collecting, and made maximum use of his contacts, particularly in Germany. When the grand-ducal collections were disposed of in Weimar in 1923 he acquired the most important drawings as well as the two famous Gabburri albums containing 401 drawings by Fra Bartolommeo. In 1929 he bought the entire private collection of Julius Böhler in Luzern, a German art dealer with whom he had been doing business since the early 1920s. That group of 238 drawings included sheets by Rembrandt and Giambattista Tiepolo, who were among Koenigs’s favourite artists.

The interior of Florapark 8 in Haarlem. The boxes of drawings were stored in the cupboards

Franz Koenigs took good care of his collection. In 1926 he added a wing to his large villa in Haarlem to house his growing collection. He also went to great lengths to store his drawings properly. His wife made the mounts and boxes [ill.]. [enWOKlezing17jan09.pdf] The latter were kept in wooden cupboards [ill.]. Visitors came regularly to view the collection, and if Koenigs himself was not at home they were received by his wife and eldest daughter.

Original black boxes for the drawings, with red labels

The drawings were arranged by school (Netherlandish, Dutch, Flemish, German I and German II, French I and French II, Italian, English, Spanish) and then alphabetically by artist. The German and French drawings were subdivided chronologically: before and after 1600 and before and after 1800. There was a separate section for drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils. The drawings were numbered sequentially within each section and a brief description of each one was entered in an inventory. Koenigs did not do this himself but left it to his advisers from the Cassirer gallery: Dr Helmuth Lütjens and Walter Feilchenfeldt. The first reference to these inventory numbers dates from 1927 (D I 11, 18 and 41).

The Koenigs Collection soon became famous internationally. The collector Frits Lugt, with whom Koenigs was in regular touch, wrote: ‘Rarely has such a choice assemblage been put together in such a short space of time, in ten years or so’. >SOURCE In 1930 and 1933 the well-known German art historian, Prof. Max J. Friedländer, director of the Kupferstich- Kabinett in Berlin, edited two large, de luxe facsimile volumes titled Meisterzeichnungen aus der Sammlung Franz Koenigs, Haarlem, each containing 21 high-quality reproductions of French and Venetian drawings respectively, which were published by Prestel-Verlag in Frankfurt.

A selection of showpieces from the Koenigs Collection

L: Albrecht Dürer, inv. D I 19
M: Leonardo da Vinci, inv. I 466
R: Rembrandt, inv. R 10

L: Lucas van Leyden, inv. N 13
M: Claude Lorrain, inv. F I 120
R: Cézanne, inv. F II 149

L: Rubens, inv. V 81
M: Gainsborough, inv. E 5
R: Goya, inv. S 16


Next: The Koenigs Collection as collateral for a bank loan (1931-1940)