Art Collecting: a One-generation Game?

A collector, an accumulator and the Hungarian museum system

Internationally speaking, the history of art collecting has attained prominence as a theme and area of expertise for art historians and as such is diversely researched. In contrast, the publication of such writings in Hungary is mainly linked to the art dealing circuit and commercial galleries, and these volumes are not always received with praise by the profession. On a positive note, artworks seemingly acquired at random assume a new meaning under the competent hands of a good collector, who, upon realising that what he is doing is a one-generation game, makes every effort to find an institution for his/her collection, at which point the unbiased eye of museum experts is vital. No art collection can exist without the vision, knowledge and commitment of its collector, who will eventually wish to hand his/her ‘creation’ over to the public. However, several factors determine if a collection is dispersed or enters our collective memory. We surveyed the history of two great collections (those of György Emőd and Károly László), firmly believing that both point beyond themselves, acting as a case study of the ailments of the Hungarian museum system. Both collections display unparalleled diversity and besides their Hungarian relevance are tied with myriad threads to the culture and tradition of Europe and beyond. Both collections found their way to a museum, although one of them only temporarily.

György Emőd was the most preeminent collector of applied art in the past thirty years: he built up a collection seminal to the modern history of 16th-17th-century goldsmith’s and porcelain art. Károly László – who lived a long life rife with adventures and participated in the art scene of Western Europe and overseas – was one of the co-founders of Art Basel. The most potent section of his multifarious collection provides a summary of the Avant-garde trends of the early 20th century and includes many artists missing or barely represented in Hungarian public collections. Neither collector is alive but both had gone to great lengths before their deaths to protect the integrity of their collections. After a tragedy and the fast reaction of a museologist, the Emőd collection successfully made its way into the Hungarian National Museum. Only now, five years after the collector’s death, is the material being inventoried, since the process of its integration into a public collection could only commence after the completion of the administrative procedure, since Emőd left no heirs or last will behind. The László Károly collection followed a less fortunate course: despite the collector’s tireless efforts to preserve his material by finding it a home in a Hungarian museum, in 2017 his heir laid claim to even those 200 works that had for thirteen years been exhibited in the Dubniczay Palace in Veszprém (part of the House of the Arts) as a long-term deposit. In his last will and testament, Károly László provided that his ashes be laid to rest in the Veszprém cemetery, close to his collection, believing his artworks had found a permanent home in the town, even though they only had temporary customs authorisation. At the moment, there is scant hope that the Károly László collection will ever be exhibited in a museum on Hungarian soil.