The Chinese Art Collections of Ernst Ohlmer and Max von Brandt. A Contribution to the History of Collecting by two German Collectors in Late Qing Dynasty and Early Republic China (1875–1914)

Funding area:
Colonial contexts
Funding recipient:
Roemer- und Pelizaeus Museum Hildesheim
Federal state:
Lower Saxony
Contact person:
Dr. Andrea Nicklisch


Dr. Sabine Lang

Positionwissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin

Sabine Hesemann M. A.

Positionwissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin

Type of project:
long-term project

In the year 1878, Senator Hermann Roemer, then director of the Hildesheim museum, sent a letter to Ernst Ohlmer who had already resided in China for 10 years at that time, asking for assistance in purchasing Chinese works of art for the Hildesheim Museum. The first Chinese works of art collected by Ohlmer arrived in Hildesheim in 1881.

Due to the destabilization of the Chinese Empire (Opium Wars 18391842, 18561860, looting of the Summer Palace in 1860 and sale of objects by soldiers, Taiping Rebellion of 1850ca. 1864, Boxer War 19001901), conditions were good for European/German collectors.

The research will examine how these circumstances might have influenced and favored the collecting activities and how the current situation may have been exploited. In this context, Ohlmer's deployment at the China Imperial Maritime Custom Service (大清皇家海关总税务司) from 1868 to 1914 is of particular importance. In that authority, which was dominated by Europeans, especially the British, he was surrounded by European upper-class society members who had access to the looted art treasures of the Old Summer Palace after the British-French looting and destruction of the palace in 1860. The British troops are known for a trophy practice setting up a system in which the soldiers would turn in their loot and commissioners would auction it. The profits were divided among all soldiers, with 1/3 of the share going to the officers and 2/3 of the share being split among the ordinary soldiers. Mostly officers and diplomats bought at these auctions. The collection of Ohlmer in the Roemer- und Pelizaeus museum dates from the aftermath of this military action. A second leg of Ohlmers acquisitions can be traced to Max von Brandt who was the Prussian envoy in China (18751893). Ohlmer took over a large collection of blue and white porcelain from von Brandt who also socialized in the upper strata of the colonial society since he was both a noble by birth and a proven connoisseur of East Asia. He would also have had access to looted artworks from the destruction of the Old and New Summer palaces. A third leg of Ohlmers collection can be traced to the aftermath of the Boxer War.

The project serves as basic research on collecting practices by foreign collectors under colonial or unstable political conditions. The questions guiding the research can be summed up as follows: What influences did the Opium Wars and the Boxer War have on the Chinese art market? How did the unstable political conditions in the late Qing dynasty affect the collecting activities of Ernst Ohlmer and Max von Brandt? Was it possible for Ohlmer to buy directly from the Chinese through his knowledge of the Chinese language, and thus more favorably than through European intermediaries? What was the relationship between Ohlmer and Max von Brandt?

Further funding partners: Stiftung Niedersächsischer Volksbanken und Raiffeisenbanken, Volksbank Hildesheim-Lehrte-Pattensen, Netzwerk Provenienzforschung in Niedersachsen

(c) Roemer- und Pelizaeus Museum Hildesheim.