In 1938 a collection of Chinese Jade carvings was taken out of Nazi-occupied Austria and brought to the UK, and now they are on display at the Freud Museum.
They are in fact part of the Sigmund Freud collection, as the famous psychoanalyst was a modest collector of antiquities for his home in Vienna.
Following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, it became increasingly obvious the Freud family was in danger, and Sigmund along with some of his family was able to negotiate escape from Vienna later that year. A couple of small pieces from his collection were smuggled out of Vienna, but the rest followed later in packing cases, a friendly art dealer having convinced the authorities that they were largely worthless junk, so that Freud wouldn’t have to pay export taxes that he could ill afford at the time.
It turns out that most of them are indeed worthless junk – most are fakes, or originals that were so heavily altered to suit the collector market as to be today of minimal value. Of course, a worthless thing can be valuable, if it was touched by someone important – so these trinkets are priceless, because of who touched them. It’s not that Freud knew he was buying fakes, and often took objects to a museum curator of Egyptology, it seemed was good enough to confirm if something Chinese looked old, but not if it actually was old.
Sigmund was not a collector of antiquities for their historic value though, but it seems for their aesthetic value. In that sense, he’s the best collector, buying what he liked, simply because he liked it.
The collection has been on display before, in the London townhouse study room that Sigmund had laid out as closely as possible to his Vienna study room, but the objects are only seen at a distance, and are scattered around as he wanted them displayed.
For the next few months, they have been placed together for the first time, in the dedicated exhibition space on the upper floor.
Here you can finally get a good look at what caught the man’s eye, and see up close one of his most treasured items, a small green jade model of a screen, that always sat on his desk at home. A small display case of books show his interest, and lack of knowledge about Chinese. He owned just one small book about the Chinese antiquities, and an early translation into Chinese of one of his books provoked much mirth about how wrong he had been about the Chinese language.
As an exhibition, it’s not one that shows off anything particularly remarkable or rare, but gives an insight into the aesthetic tastes of a man, who like so many at the time, collected so that he could be surrounded by things he liked to look at.