A Hungarian butcher’s fabulous art collection

Today’s theme, art, is not the common fare of this blog. But, fret not, the post will also deal with life in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s. It will even touch on economics. Specifically, how the closed socialist regime in Hungary distorted the prices of art works and barred  twentieth-century Hungarian artists from becoming known outside of the country.

What inspired me to write about all this was an article in yesterday’s Népszabadság. It was about the public exhibit of a private collection of 230 Hungarian masterpieces. At the same time a book, The Secret Collection, appeared about the art works, written by art historian Péter Molnos. The collector of this treasure trove died in 1982 and he was, yes, a kosher butcher with a sixth-grade education.

István Kövesi, the butcher-collector, was one of the few “maszek” (abbreviation of magánszektor/private sector) store owners in those days. His kosher establishment was certified by the Hungarian Jewish religious authorities, but he couldn’t have made a go of the business if he had had to rely only on butchering. So he began making pickles of all kinds, for which the store became famous.

Mr. and Mrs. Kövesi in front of their butcher shop

The Kövesis in front of their butcher shop

What could a well-heeled “maszek” (and most of the “maszek” store owners did in fact prosper) do with his accumulated wealth? Not much. He couldn’t have purchased real estate because a family could have only one dwelling in addition to the one in which the family lived. Buying gold was considered to be a crime. Nobody kept money in the bank because they didn’t want the state know about their wealth. So, some people decided, the smarter ones at least, that converting their cash into art might be a good way of dealing with the dilemma.

It seems that some other “maszek” success stories had the same idea as Kövesi did, but after the change of regime, once the original collector died, the heirs immediately cashed in and the paintings were sold to art galleries or new collectors. Practically no large collection remained intact. Kövesi’s two children, on the other hand, not only hung on to the 230 paintings by the greatest names in Hungarian art but also kept the collection a secret. With some difficulty the owner of the Kieselbach Gallery managed to convince the Kövesi children to allow the collection to be exhibited.

Why did they keep the existence of the collection a secret even after democracy arrived in Hungary? Most likely out of habit. After all, the collection had to be kept a secret because as far as the state was concerned, it was illegally gained wealth. Second, keeping 230 priceless paintings safe in an ordinary, not too well secured apartment in “újlipótváros” (Neue Leopoldstadt), formerly the Jewish section of Pest, was best accomplished if nobody knew about them.

However well pickles sold in Kövesi’s store, he couldn’t have bought nine László Mednyánszky paintings if the price of art had not been so depressed in those days. The poverty of precisely the kinds of people who would have been most likely to collect art was great. If anything, older collectors were selling off pieces of their collections, mostly to BÁV, Bizományi Áruház Vállalat, a consignment store that occasionally held auctions. Any kind of private art deal was illegal, although Kövesi eventually knew enough people in the art world that he managed to get some valuable pieces straight from the artists. It was also illegal to export any work of art from Hungary.

A former economics professor of mine, John Michael Montias, who was on the side an art collector, spent a year in Hungary in 1964-1965. He told me about people arriving at the regular auctions organized by BÁV with suitcases full of cash. Perhaps István Kövesi was one of them because there was at least one occasion on which Kövesi left 160,000 forints for seven famous paintings. The average salary at the time was 2,000 a month.

Today Kövesi’s collection is exceedingly valuable. A couple of recent auction prices for paintings by artists represented in the collection give a sense of the value of the collection. A János Vaszary piece was sold in 2011 for 35 million forints. A Róbert Berényi painting was auctioned off for the same amount. Even the least expensive paintings in the collection are worth a few million.

Among the artists represented in the Kövesi collection are János Vaszary (1867-1938), Imre Ámos (1907-1944), József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927), Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894-1941), Sándor Bortnyik (1893-1976), Izsák Perlmutter (1866-1919), László Mednyánszky, Margit Anna, Lajos Kassák, Jenő Barcsay, Béla Kádár (1877-1956), István Szőnyi (1894-1960), István Csók (1865-1961), Adolf Fényes (1867-1945), József Koszta (1861-1949), and István Pekáry (1905-1981).

As I said, before the change of regime no art work of any kind could leave the country because, the political leaders argued, the treasures of the nation must remain at home. The authorities included anything of presumed value in the list of forbidden items, not just Hungarian “treasures.” To pass through customs every questionable item needed a stamp from the authorities attesting to its “not worth keeping in the country–i.e., junk” status. As a result, these painters, some of whom may have acquired international fame, were unheard of outside of Hungary. It was a disservice to them and to the country.

One more thing about István Kövesi. He himself didn’t know anything about art before he decided to collect paintings. But he learned and also managed to find knowledgeable teachers among art historians and employees of BÁV. It was, however, always he who made the final choice. He obviously had good taste.

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22 comments

  1. Thanks Pete. Excellent stuff, thank God for Kim Lane Scheppele.

    This quote from her proposal sums up for me why it’s so important for the EU to act:

    “At this critical stage in European history, it is crucially important that the fundamental values
    enshrined in the European treaties be vigorously protected. The EU must be extremely watchful whenever they are put at risk anywhere within its borders. And it must be able to react swiftly and effectively to ensure compliance with its most basic principles. We propose addressing this issue as a priority and believe that the Commission has a key role to play here.”

    This is actually a quote from a letter to the European Commission from the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark. They suggested that new tools were necessary to bring “persistently deviating” States into line. They also proposed that “as a last resort, the suspension of EU funding should be possible.”

  2. This is a lovely account incorporating both the social history of the MASZEKs and some art history. One error though; Amos was born in 1907 and killed in 1944.

  3. Off topic, but anyway…

    My wife and I went to see the movie, The Books Thief, tonight. After 20 minutes a couple walked out. Ten minutes later, another couple walked out.

    I didn’t know there were so many Hungarians in Miami…

  4. “The poverty of precisely the kinds of people who would have been most likely to collect art was great. If anything, older collectors were selling off pieces of their collections, mostly to BÁV, Bizományi Áruház Vállalat, a consignment store that occasionally held auctions. Any kind of private art deal was illegal

    painters, some of whom may have acquired international fame, were unheard of outside of Hungary. It was a disservice to them and to the country.”

    A great reminder of how depressing life was under socialism.

  5. Does the European Union interfere in USA’s legal proceedings?
    If not, what does Scheppele from the USA have to do with EU’s legal proceedings?

  6. @Tyrker: “A great reminder of how depressing life was under socialism.”

    Do you think anyone here wants that kind of “socialism” to return ?

    I for example was lucky to grow up in West Germany and after visiting East Germany once (actually just passing through on our way to Berlin and doing a day trip to East Berlin) I told my partner that I’d never visit a country in the Eastern Block again …

    The only exception was Yugoslavia with its kind of semi-capitalistic economy, which was really good for us tourists on the Mediterranean coast.

    And my first visit to Hungary was in 1995.

  7. Johnny Boy :
    Does the European Union interfere in USA’s legal proceedings?
    If not, what does Scheppele from the USA have to do with EU’s legal proceedings?

    Does the US belong to the EU?
    Does the US receive annual developmental funds of billions from the EU?

    I know that principles and obligations don’t mean much to you “Bekemenet Boys” but when you sign up to join a group it generally means that you abide by the principles of that group.

  8. Johnny Boy :
    Does the European Union interfere in USA’s legal proceedings?
    If not, what does Scheppele from the USA have to do with EU’s legal proceedings?

    One of the most irrelevant comments you have ever made. Scheppele is an academic, not the US government. She is free to write about anything.

  9. Pete H. :

    Johnny Boy :
    Does the European Union interfere in USA’s legal proceedings?
    If not, what does Scheppele from the USA have to do with EU’s legal proceedings?

    One of the most irrelevant comments you have ever made. Scheppele is an academic, not the US government. She is free to write about anything.

    That, too, is correct.
    But these Bekemenet types know only how to follow the ukazi of the beloved leader.

  10. Off topic, but not out of bounds. A desire to relive the Fascist past lives deep in many hearts in Croatia, Hungary is not alone in relation to that impulse. By the way does anyone know if Simunic’s family history included involvement with the Ustaše?

    ZAGREB, CROATIA (AP) NOV 26, 2013

    A Croatian soccer player has been fined $4,300 for pro-Nazi chants after the national team qualified for the World Cup.
    Croatia reached next year’s tournament in Brazil by beating Iceland 2-0 on Tuesday. After the match, Josip Simunic took a microphone on the field and shouted to fans: ”For the homeland!” The fans responded: ”Ready!”
    The call was used by the Croatian pro-Nazi puppet regime that ruled the state during World War II.
    The prosecutor’s office fined Simunic on Thursday for ”spreading racial hatred.” It said he was aware this was the call used by the WWII regime. Simunic has defended his action, saying he was driven by love for his country.
    Soccer’s governing body says it is considering disciplinary action against him.
    The Australian born footballer said in a statement on Wednesday: “Even the thought that someone could put me in the context of incitement of hatred or violence is horrible. As a Croatian who was born and grew up outside my homeland, I associate home with love, warmth and positive struggle — everything that we showed on the pitch to win our place in the World Cup.
    “And these were the only reasons I got carried away with my emotions and why I started the kind of exchange with the supporters.”

  11. @Istvan

    ““And these were the only reasons I got carried away with my emotions…”

    Suuurrre. It’s not as if the racism and hatred didn’t come while suckling at his mother’s breast!

    It’s to be noted that this qumquat could think of nothing else as likely to inflame the ardour
    of the gentle Croats.

  12. Johnny Boy :
    Does the European Union interfere in USA’s legal proceedings?
    If not, what does Scheppele from the USA have to do with EU’s legal proceedings?

    Rather simple: she cares, and she knows what she’s talking about – as opposed to a few millions of inborn natives.
    Someone has to, after all…

  13. Nice to know – even after so many years, that someone had the courage, stamina, – take your pick – to preserve the available works of valuable artists.

    Let me call your attention, that there is no right- or left supporters – there are both, if you look at it from the present mandatory point of view – only good art.
    All of this at the time, when anyone with a spare ‘forint’ bought a piece of property in order to sustain the wealth of their family – while what we seeing here is a preservation of values of common interest.
    Even if it’s privately owned, it is a “national treasure” in the true meaning of the words – as I see it. It is something what really could called true patriotism in retrospective.

    Are we mature enough to see it from there?

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