Chatwin and Utz
by Nicholas Shakespeare
I once heard Bruce Chatwin read aloud from a work in progress. It was from his last novel, Utz. Ill with the disease that shortly would kill him, Chatwin sat at his kitchen table in Oxfordshire, glancing up from time to time to check if I was bored. I wasn’t. The thirty pages he narrated were hysterically funny and quite sad.
The story, set in Cold War Prague, was based on a man who owned, as Chatwin put it, “the greatest collection of Meissen”, and had married his maid in order to keep this intact. Chatwin had met Dr Rudolf Just “for four hours” in 1967, twenty years before. The maid (called Marta in the novel) was peeling potatoes on a plate made for Frederick the Great. After a walk through the town, Just said to Chatwin: “I’m going to a brothel.”
“Why did he need to marry his maid?” I asked.
Because, Chatwin said, his wife had died and the authorities might shift him into a smaller flat.
“What happened to the collection?”
Chatwin had no idea, but twice he had returned to Prague to find out. In 1984, he had rung the bell of the National Museum of Decorative Arts. A woman came downstairs. “Just has died,” she said in a low voice. “We don’t know what happened. Do you?”
Three years later, in 1987, not long before my visit to his house at Homer End, Chatwin had walked with his wife Elizabeth to Just’s apartment in Lodecka Street, but Just’s name had been removed from the board. In Utz, Chatwin speculates that after Just died, his widow, being more interested in geese than in Meissen, had tumbled the precious figurines into one of the great grey garbage bins in Just’s foyer. In a film made by the BBC in 1992, three years after Chatwin’s death, the collection meets a more drastic end: Marta Utz picks up each delicate Rococo piece – and smashes it.
In any event, the collection was presumed dispersed or destroyed. When, in 1991, I visited Prague to research Chatwin’s biography, I loitered outside the building, before deciding not to climb the stairs. Had I mustered the boldness to knock, the door would have been opened by Just’s widow, custodian to one of the most remarkable and eclectic private collections in Central Europe, and emblematic of a culture that has since disappeared.
The rescue from oblivion of the Just Collection owes much to Sebastian Kuhn, at the time a 34-year-old ceramics expert at Sotheby’s. No one would have applauded Kuhn more warmly than Chatwin, who first worked at Sotheby’s in the same department – it had been a colleague in the porcelain department, Kate Foster, who in 1967 gave Chatwin the introduction to Dr Rudolf Just, “a businessman and passionate collector of glass, silver and Meissen”.
At roughly the same moment as I prevaricated on Lodecka Street, Kuhn was working in the Sotheby’s office in Zurich. There he learned about a Czech widow who in the mid-1980s had visited the Zurich office with the intention of selling a gold coin. One of the auction-house staff had accompanied her to a safe deposit box and observed her pick out the coin “so that she might buy a present for her grandson”. Apropos of nothing in particular, she mentioned how in Prague she owned a collection of Augustus Rex porcelain.
Nine years later, Kuhn was ambushed with a recollection of this woman’s arresting story when, in 1999, he travelled to Prague to catalogue the porcelain of a tiny 93-year-old piano teacher.
Frau Fischerová lived on a hill in the suburbs. She welcomed Kuhn with a dazzling smile. She grabbed his hand and explained “in beautiful old-fashioned German” how bad things had happened to her. Her best pieces had gone, either stolen or sold cheaply in order to survive. What remained lay piled on her piano.
Once Kuhn had finished listing the items, she brought in Bohemian cakes: “Now you must rest.” She watched him eat and talked in a bubbly way about music; she was proud still to have one student. She was quite deaf, so Kuhn had to yell. Suddenly, she leapt up and began pounding out a medley of Bach and Strauss. “The porcelain started wobbling like crazy and I thought I’d have to leap up and save it.”
The spectacle of this frail old lady hammering the piano keys in an animated way that risked destroying her last pieces of china jogged Kuhn’s mind. When conversation resumed, talk turned to the late Rudolf Just: Kuhn knew of him from articles that Just had contributed in the 1950s to Keramikfreunde der Schweiz, the main scholarly journal for ceramics, in which he was referred to as “the great porcelain researcher Just”. But the journal no longer had Just’s address, and no one in the ceramics world could help.
Had Frau Fischerová heard of him?
Just was a friend of her second husband. But she didn’t know the fate of his collection, nor where his descendants lived.
Kuhn made enquiries at an antiques fair in Prague that he attended with his colleague Filip Marco. Tantalizingly, a coy dealer recalled that someone earlier in the day had been peddling an item once owned by Rudolf Just. Following a tortuous goose-chase, Marco located an address for Just’s son in Bratislava and wrote offering to value the collection – if it still existed.
Weeks later, back in London, Kuhn received an urgent telephone call from the Sotheby’s Prague office: one hour before, a mother and son had walked in unannounced. Wary and apprehensive, they introduced themselves as Just’s daughter-in-law and grandson, his only surviving relatives. They had never heard of Chatwin, nor of Utz, nor of Sotheby’s. They had come to check the address on Marco’s letter-head in order to satisfy themselves that Sotheby’s was “not a con”.
Like Frau Fischerová, Just’s last two descendants made out that terrible things had happened to them. Their fears put to rest, they agreed that if Kuhn travelled to Bratislava they would discuss the collection. But on this condition: he kept their names secret.
On 25 April 2000, Kuhn and Marco found the couple waiting patiently outside the Hotel Danube. Just’s daughter-in-law – Frau U, let us call her – was an archivist in her mid-50’s, dressed in a parka and going slightly grey. Her son was a student in his early twenties.
“Follow us,” she said.
Kuhn drove through Bratislava and out along the river. He imagined a suburban villa like that in which Frau Fischerová lived. Instead, he followed Frau U’s car through an estate of communist tower blocks, “the ugliest suburbs I’d ever seen”. He parked in a lot. They went up to the thirteenth floor and walked down a shabby corridor, Frau U pointing out scuff marks on the wall where robbers had tried to lever themselves to ram down her door.
Kuhn removed his shoes, was given slippers and entered a small, airless apartment. He glanced around for evidence of a collection, and saw a large TV set and a pile of videos. The sole trace of Rudolf Just was a framed photo of him playing in a wide field with a boy. Suitably enigmatic, Just’s face remained shrouded by his trilby.
Frau U sat Kuhn at the dining-room table and offered Kuhn seed-cake. For the next half hour, she and her son sketched out Just’s life. In their matter-of-fact way, they told an awful story.
Rudolf Just once wrote to Kate Foster in England: “I am far more interested in objects which pose not easily resolvable questions than in those which everyone knows…” His own life story is shot through with riddles.
Born in 1895 in Bohemia, Just studied law in Vienna and served as a cavalry officer in World War One. Later, he managed the Bata shoe company and owned a textile business. The textiles financed his travels and his art-collecting.
Chatwin’s portrait of Utz was of a man unobtrusive to the extent that the narrator couldn’t recall whether he had a moustache or not. Indeed, photographs confirm a nondescript face in the mould of Arthur Lowe. He is pictured in tweed plus-fours striding through the German Alps or skiing near Lake Constance. In several photographs his companion is a fine-faced young woman in a leopard skin bow-tie: Marketa Wahle, whom he married in 1939.
The couple kept their heads down during Germany’s occupation, but in 1945 Marketa was denounced as a Jew and taken to Teresienstadt (she was later freed), while Just was sent to the Nazi labour camp at Kleinstein. On 3 March 1945, he forged a signature and escaped.
As the Russians moved on Prague, the Germans prepared to detonate an arms dump in Petrovska Square. A figure was seen advancing towards them holding a white flag: Just. After much pleading, he persuaded the commander to abandon his explosive plan. He was inspired to his bravery from a wish to preserve intact his art collection, housed yards away.
Just owed the survival of his collection to his housekeeper Ludmila Ottomanska, the woman who years later became his second wife. All the time that Just and Marketa had been incarcerated, Ludmila zealously guarded their apartment. (In one story the Gestapo turn up at the door, but she bats them away). A photograph shows her in a tight-fitting hat. She has a round, doughy face and looks, it has to be said, unlike a conventional mistress.
Ludmila’s role is crucial as it is mysterious. In 1942, she had given birth to Just’s son, Juruj. And yet it is Marketa who brings up Juruj in the apartment, as her child. It is hard to imagine Ludmila’s relationship with the couple. The compromises that they must have reached can only be surmised. Ludmila continued after the war to act as their housekeeper, perhaps as a way of gaining access to her son.
Meanwhile, reunited with his collection, Just added to it. He was opportunistic, as art collectors are, and when good things came up he grabbed them. In 1946, for instance, he bought five Meissen busts of Holy Roman Emperors from nationalised Bohemian castles. He was not allowed to sell except through the “state store”, but sometimes he visited the spa town of Carlsbad and tasted the phlegmy water there with a Swiss ceramic collector, Andreina Torre. She drove to meet him in an old burgundy Bentley. Concealed on one occasion in her boot was his priceless bust of Maximilian II. Over time, the Emperors Ferdinand III and Charles VII were smuggled by Bentley to Zurich.
In 1962, Just was denounced by his building’s janitor as a “speculator”. He was acquitted, but lived on in no small anxiety that the state would appropriate his collection at any moment. In 1966, his wife died. Almost immediately he married Ludmila, the mother of his child.
Months afterwards, Chatwin visits.
Just died in 1972. “And his collection?” enquired Kuhn. Did his widow hurry out with it at dead of night and hurl it into one of the large grey dustbins on Lodecka Street?
Not at all, said Frau U. Ludmila continued to live quietly in the apartment until the new Czech Republic, when a raft of tragedies visited the family.
In 1992, Juruj died of cancer. Then Ludmila was knocked down by a tram. Shortly afterwards, her grandson, the eldest of Frau U’s two sons by Juruj, was murdered because of the collection. He had blurted about it to a friend, and the indiscretion reached the ears of two criminals who shot him dead outside the building and ransacked the apartment. When they came back to collect more objects, the police were waiting.
The police gave to Frau U a plastic bag containing her son’s belongings. Grief-stricken, she showed the bag to Kuhn. Inside were his watch and a bundle of old Federation banknotes. Her younger son told Kuhn: “After my brother’s death, I even thought that it would be better to destroy the collection because it was bringing us such bad times.”
But where was the collection, asked Kuhn? Did it exist – or had it been broken up and stolen and frittered away to dealers?
They moved into the sitting room. Frau U’s son brought in a cardboard box. An object emerged, wrapped in newspaper and the sun’s rays caught the dust particles thrown up as Kuhn opened a small but fabulous flower vase.
“I wasn’t expecting it. I told them: ‘Actually, this is a really wonderful object. This is du Paquier and made in 1730.’”
They nodded, indifferent to his excitement. Frau U worked in a museum and liked things, but she didn’t particularly understand them.
“I make a list,” said Kuhn. “The next piece comes out and it’s also good.” Then Just’s grandson appeared, pulling a big square wicker basket full of old clothes. He gathered up something buttoned in a tattered coat, “like a corpse dressed up”. The buttons were undone on the biggest Meissen vase Kuhn had seen: almost three feet high and created in 1735 for a palace never completed. “What a thing to find in a basket of old clothes!”
A suitcase was hauled out from under the sofa. Inside were plates stacked with newspaper in between. And so on. “Important piece after important piece,” Kuhn wrote that night in his diary. Many were stamped with the initials KHC and came from the royal pantry in Dresden. “The irony of the pieces made for Augustus the Strong hidden away in a flat on the 13th floor in a block in a row of blocks.”
Just had kept his collection out to look at. His descendants stored it in cardboard boxes under beds. For them, it had meant murder and robbery and fraud. Now they wanted to be rid of it. Kuhn recalled, “I didn’t have to do a sales pitch.” But he was conscious of having to tread with extreme care. Almost his last diary entry reads: “How greedy can we be?”
A fortnight later, Kuhn returned to complete the inventory and brought a video of the BBC’s adaptation of Utz. Mother and son watched it on the large TV and enjoyed it, but with this unexpected caveat: Utz concentrated on Meissen figures – practically non-existent in the collection, which was “more a cabinet of curiosities”.
In Utz, Chatwin rescued his own past. Just’s tiny apartment in Prague was an elaborate version of his grandmother’s drawing room in Birmingham at 198 West Heath Road. Chatwin converted his grandmother’s Victorian cabinet into Utz’s plate-glass shelves.
Chatwin’s collecting bug leads directly back to this mahogany wedding gift from Chamberlain, King & Jones, with three shelves behind glass doors that locked. Known as the “family museum”, it contained odds and ends that had been handed down, and to each a narrative was attached. Aged four, the young Chatwin admired them through his reflection: his grandfather’s christening mug; a strange scrap of reddish fur sent by a cousin from Puerto Natales and rumoured to be brontosaurus (but in point of fact slothskin); a seed necklace given by an uncle then living, and later murdered, in West Africa; a Victorian walker’s compass, belonging to a cousin swallowed up in the Melbourne gold-rush, etc., etc.
The lockable cabinet became a sustaining metaphor, and informed the content of Chatwin’s work (faraway places, one-offs, marvels, fakes) and its style (patchwork, vitreous, self-contained). The art critic Robert Hughes said: “He liked the off-beat. He liked the monstrous. He liked things that suggested an inadvertent crack in the seamless world of cause and effect.” The shelves and drawers were a repository for collecting, movement and story. “For those who are awake the cosmos is one,” Chatwin wrote in a notebook. He hated to see a collection broken up.
The collections Chatwin most admired were the Pitt-Rivers museums in Oxford and Farnham; the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris, where he proposed to his wife; the Volkerkunde in Vienna. In 1967, like the narrator of Utz, Chatwin had stopped off in Vienna on his way to Prague: “The Imperial mantle of 1125!! with gold lions attacking camels on a scarlet ground is the most wonderful thing I ever saw,” he wrote to Elizabeth. “The sword of Charles the Bold has a narwhal tusk sheath and handle, and I must say I am more than resigned to the extravagance of a tusk since seeing the unicorn presented to the Emperor Rudolf, one of the inalienable treasures of the Habsburgs together with a sumptuous Byzantine agate bowl, once considered to be the Holy Grail.”
In Utz, Chatwin reaches back at the end of his life to his four-year old self, to the young Utz visiting his grandmother’s castle outside Prague and standing on tip-toe before her vitrine of antique porcelain and saying, “I want him.” The slothskin has been recast as a Meissen harlequin with a leering orange mask. “He had found his vocation: he would devote his life to collecting.”
Most travel writers colonise a territory. Chatwin kept moving. Each of his books explores a different part of the world. They cooked in his head a long time, but the cabinet was his departure point. It was a centre of order, a larder for his daydreams, and the objects in it his toys, his routes to knowledge. Charlie Milward’s hairy remnant belongs to In Patagonia; Uncle Humphrey’s seed necklace to The Viceroy of Ouidah; the Victorian walker’s compass to The Songlines; his grandfather’s christening mug and “Bruce china” to Utz.
Half way through writing Utz, Chatwin set out to explain its theme. “This was a man who’d ruined his life by clinging onto his enormously wonderful collection of Meissen figurines through the horrors of the Second World War and the early years of Stalinism. The whole thing had trapped him because he could never leave the collection and it ruined his life.”
But Utz was also Chatwin, who never transcended his ambivalence about the art world. He collected in order to live, using his “eye” to buy objects, and then selling them at a higher price. By late 1987, when he read his manuscript to me, he had more or less relinquished “anything artistic” apart from a few tiny exquisite objects stored in a cardboard box. The objects were simple, sacred and small, what might be held in the palm or fit into his knapsack, and “more or less abstract in quality”: an Eskimo seal-toggle of walrus ivory, a white shell nose ornament from the Solomon Islands, a Celtic iron cross; a Ngoro red lacquer snuff box from Japan. “If you want to know what encapsulates what I am and everything I believe in,” he told a friend, ”it’s this.” The objects had cost hundreds, not thousands of pounds. In 30 years of dealing, the most Chatwin paid was £4,000, for a small oil painting from the Danish Kunsthammer called The Ambassadors.
In the last months of his life, the Pencillium marneffei fungus, now known to be a symptom of Aids, infected Chatwin’s brain, while sparing his verbal fluency and his ability to beguile. His hypomania made him a concentrate of himself, someone funny, private, romantic, persuasive who believed fiercely in his own stories. A full-blown self.
In this state, Chatwin began the process of dispersing the box’s contents among friends. But he was not free of things. In the same breath, he replaced his Box of Treasures with an alternative collection. Conceived in honour of Elizabeth, the Homer Collection would be his memorial to his wife and to his taste, with the considerable sums that he supposed he had earned through his writing.
He amassed the Homer Collection in a burst of shopping sprees to London in June and July 1988. In brisk succession, he bought a Bronze Age armband for £65,000, an Etruscan head for £150,000, and a £70,000 icon of Saint Paraskevi wearing a glowing tomato-coloured robe. He could not wait for the objects to be packed. They were shoved into plastic bags and attached to the back of his wheelchair.
One spree ended at the Ritz where he had rented a room for the afternoon. More dealers turned up. At the end of the afternoon, Bruce turned to one of them with an ebullient eye: “Tomorrow, musical instruments, women’s clothes and incunables!”
Art worth over a million pounds at one point filled the dining room at Homer End to bursting point, paid for with post-dated cheques. Behind his back, Elizabeth started to return what he had bought even as it was delivered.
In his last interview, after Utz was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Chatwin spoke with bright, sunken eyes of how Marta’s love had triumphed over Utz’s collection. Love had won over art, which “always lets you down”.
At our Sunday lunch in Homer End, after Chatwin stopped reading, I offered up, at his encouragement, a small observation. On Utz’s one and only excursion to England, on a visit to the Isle of Wight, the Czech collector had peered out of his boarding-house window through lace curtains. Wasn’t that a bit of a cliché, a bit kitsch?
I was touched to see that Chatwin removed the curtains in the published version. Yet when it came to cliché and kitsch, the lace curtains had nothing on the touristy object that Rudolf Just actually did purchase on his visit, and, upon his return to Prague, positioned winkingly among his precious Meissen. A label on the base describes it: “The natural coloured sand of Alum Bay so arranged as to represent The Caverns, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, by W. Carpenter.”
This bell-shaped glass of coloured sand was included in the auction of the Rudolf Just Collection, organised by Sebastian Kuhn at Sotheby’s London, to which Frau U and her son turned up.
One issue had continued to vex Frau U. Years earlier, she had written to Just’s bank in Zurich regarding his safe deposit box. A search would cost her, replied the bank. She let the matter rest. But she told Kuhn that she possessed a metal key engraved with a number. Kuhn immediately recalled the story of the Czech widow and her gold coin.
The old woman, Kuhn realised, had been Ludmila – Just’s maid, his second wife, the mother of Juruj, and protector of his collection. “That’s her key, I thought.”
On 2 August 2001, Kuhn escorted Juruj’s widow and her son to the Union Bank of Switzerland in Paradaplatz Square. An official inserted the bank’s key, Frau U inserted hers and the locker door came off, revealing a long metal box with a hinged top. Inside were 90 gold coins: Bohemian ducats from the seventeenth century, one of them the size of a beermat and together, estimated, Kuhn, worth £250,000.
The ducats would be included in the Sotheby’s sale on 11 December 2001 that raised more than $2,235,927 (£2,415,000 in today’s prices) for Frau U and her son. The coins alone sold for $631,190, with one of the Meissen vases selling for $156,321. Among the items was a white porcelain statue of a lapdog, which Elizabeth Chatwin successfully bid for.
“People tend to be mistrustful of auction houses,” said Kuhn. “In a case like this, we did the right thing by these people.”
Deliverance could not come too soon. As Chatwin wrote in Utz: “Things are tougher than people. Things are the changeless mirror in which we watch ourselves disintegrate. Nothing is more ageing than a collection of works of art.”
Almost the cheapest item in the sale was Just’s bottle of coloured sands from the Isle of Wight – which stands on my desk as I write.