Herr Johannes Freiherr von Diergardt’s medieval jewels shine at the Neues

Marta Galli  -  February 13, 2018

The Neues museum in Berlin celebrates Johannes Freiherr von Diergardt’s extraordinary collection of Medieval jewels finally shedding some light on this discreet European gentleman.

He always insisted on being recorded as an “unnamed patron”, but Johannes Freiherr von Diergardt was possibly the Berlin Museum of Prehistory and Early History’s biggest sponsor. Although his story is almost inscrutable for a non-German speaker due to the lack of international literature in this regard – he was certainly a giant among Medieval art collectors.

The grandson of a silk and velvet merchant, Diergardt, born in 1859, was wealthy enough to assemble a collection of unique archaeological treasures that he once considered selling, when a financial loss struck him in the 20s, but never did. It occurred to his heirs to take this step, And it was then that a substantial part of his inventory – which he had intended for the Museum of Prehistory and Early History Berlin – was sent instead to the Wallraf-Richartz museum in Cologne, the precursor of what is now the Römisch-Germanisches museum. Today the cherished collection is back in its home-city – where it was on display until 1934 – for the tiny and delightful exhibition The crown of Kerch: Treasures from the Dawn of European History at Neues museum until September 2019.

It’s a triumph of gold jewelry with gemstones, silver fibulae and magnificent belts from Dark-Ages graves in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Black Sea region, as well as remains of clothing, weapons and vessels made of glass, bronze or clay that were buried to accompany the dead in the afterlife. All of these span through the centuries, bridging the antique and Medieval eras. It is all we got from early civilizations, whose material culture is in fact contained in “portable art” – far beyond their practical purpose, these craft-works affirmed power and status, and would provide the aesthetic apparatus for Gothic architecture soon after.

As for Johannes von Diergardt, he began collecting quite early in life – as a schoolboy he would buy antique coins. His interest in archaeology was triggered by the accidental finding of Medieval burials at the family residence near Bonn, at the Schloss Bornheim, when a tomb was built in the garden. He ended up accumulating beautiful Medieval pieces from Western Europe, and Migration-period finds from the region north of the Black Sea – these are undoubtedly what made his collection famous. In 1907, Diergardt acquired a collection of southern Russian excavations from the French Massoneau, the administrator of the vineyards of the Tsar in the Crimea. One of these pieces, famously known as the Crown of Kerch, emerged from the grave of a lady in the eastern part of the peninsula, and is now the highlight of the exhibition. Such diadems – with individually mounted red gemstones and rising bird heads – are extremely rare. They are associated with the ferocious tribe of warriors known as the Huns, who crossed the River Don invading the West in the second half of the 4th century AD.

The collection, like many assembled in the 19th and 20th centuries with the assistance of antique dealers, includes some dubious artefacts and obvious replicas (a few of them were forged for exhibition purposes back then). Many items lack information on where they were found, assuming only a general indication of the region they originated from. But considering the modern-day obsession with provenance within the world of collecting, it’s almost impressive how generally loose the historical record is for these objects. On the other hand, they carry intact a deep sense of wonder that only chronicles from elsewhere can convey. Diergardt apparently dealt passionately with the origin and history of his pieces, but he left very few written notes about it, as he relied primarily on his memory, which vanished with his sudden departure.

The old gentleman had a house in Berlin from 1923, and that was where you could find him when he wasn’t travelling. Nevertheless, he always managed to elude crowded places as well as events such as exhibition openings, while enjoying the company of scientists working late at the museum. Only at night, after public opening hours, he liked to pay a visit to his collections. It is also said that at some point he had actually instructed the heirs to destroy his belongings upon his death. Well, history took a different path.