Provenance research on works on paper from the WELLA collection at the HLMD

Published on August 2, 2023

The Wella collection at the HLMD

In 2013, when the company’s museum was liquidated, the Wella collection was transferred almost in its entirety to the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt and distributed among the various collections in this universal museum. The over one thousand objects in the graphics collection’s inventory are currently the focus of a project by the Central Office for Provenance Research Hesse, in the course of which the objects’ acquisitional contexts are to be examined for possible expropriation resulting from National Socialist persecution. Although the Wella collection was assembled in the post-war years, for many years neither art dealers nor collectors inquired who were the former owners of a particular object and through whose hands it had passed.

Examining the works on paper from the Wella Collection for possible illegal expropriation is an important step—one that also helps us to learn more about the objects’ biographies, the collection’s context, and the people who were involved in its composition.

From hair tulle to perm to art—the Ströher family and the Wella museum

The Wella brand is today world famous. But few people know that from 1952 to the early 2000s the Wella company built up a wide-ranging museum of over 3,000 objects at its Darmstadt headquarters.

In 1880 in Rothenkirchen (Vogtland), the hairdresser and wigmaker Franz Ströher (1854-1936) opened a hair tulle manufactory, thus laying the foundation stone of the Wella company that, under his sons Karl (1890-1977) and Georg (1891-1964), was to become an international supplier of hairdressing requisites. When the company later settled in Darmstadt, it put together a collection of unique historical and cultural interest in the Wella museum—an institution initiated by Karl und Georg Ströher and open to the general public. The museum’s aim was nothing less than to document the cultural history of the hairdresser’s art and beauty and body care.

Wella commercial
Advertisement from the Wella-Nachrichten [Wella news], number 5/6, 1 November 1930, 1st year, Franz Ströher Rothenkirchen p.p., p.17.

Profile of the collection: documenting the history of beauty care by means of flea traps, Empress Joséphine’s toilet case, fashion magazines, caricatures, and much more.

The collection’s profile reflects its aspiration to trace the development of beauty and body care from earliest times to the beginning of the 20th century—both historically and geographically. In terms of genre too, the collection is extremely varied. Mechanical and craft objects, paintings, and prints in a range of techniques, a few drawings, and numerous books and documents thus found their way into the collection.

The collection impressively demonstrates the close relationship between beauty and health care. For the development of the hairdresser’s trade was intimately bound up with those of barber and miracle doctor. Illustrations and texts in books and magazines bring home to us the everyday work world of these and similar professions—sometimes factually and informatively, for instance in encyclopaedias, sometimes humorously through clichéd representations and caricatures.

Robert Bérnard, Perruquier-Barbier, Etuve et préparation de la Perruque, pl. 4, copperplate engraving. Illustration to Diderot and D’Alembert, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, 1771, inv. no. HLMD: We-GR 112 d.

In the spirit of the age, numerous 18th- and 19th-century caricatures from Great Britain, France, and Germany by artists such as Gillray, Rowlandson, Daumier, and Gavarni satirise the often absurd hairstyles, fashion vogues, and political and social trends of their time.

Wella commercial
After Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, published by R. Sayer & J. Bennett, A Hint to the Ladies to take Care of their Heads, 1776, mezzotint, coloured, inv. no. HLMD: We-GR 266.

Representations of historical hairstyles and costumes in illustrated magazines also give us an idea of the fashion trends and artistic skills of different epochs and cultures. One outstanding feature of the collection of fashion and beauty illustrations are the Japanese coloured woodcuts and the two Indian miniatures.

Why provenance research? Suspicious markings

The objects in the Wella collection and their significance are many and varied, as are the clues to be found on the objects themselves and in their documentation. Such clues have to be examined to determine whether they cast doubt on the lawful acquisition of a particular object.

The very names of some protagonists give rise to suspicions that have to be refuted or confirmed. For example purchases made from the Darmstadt bookseller and antiques dealer Carl W. Buemming (1899-1963) need to be further investigated. He was in the National Socialist era an extremely enterprising businessman and as representative of the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne he was also well connected beyond Darmstadt itself. This is no less the case with the art auctioneer Karl von der Porten (1897-prob. 1970) of Hanover, who notoriously auctioned off his adoptive father’s art collection—the latter was persecuted for being “Jewish”—and who also earned his money through household liquidation valuations. The label of the “aryanised” firm of Franz Leuwer in Bremen also requires particular attention. Designed for the firm of Leuwer by Friedrich Wilhelm Kleukens (1878-1956), the label bearing this particular address can be dated at the earliest to 1905/06 and at the latest to 1943. Starting in 1936, the firm’s long-serving employee Carl Emil Spiegel became its sole owner after Franz Leuwer’s widow had been pressured to leave the business. It has been proved that Spiegel dealt in goods from so-called “Jewish auctions”. Whether the objects concerned provide clues to a questionable provenance remains to be examined.

Label of Franz Leuwer Art Dealer Bremen

But provenance markings that lead to unknown or little known persons can also awaken suspicion. Thus, a book by Joseph Jacob von Plenck on the surgeon’s art, published in Venice in 1781, contains the stamp of the Biblioteca Civica Capodistria. This library in the Slovenian harbour city of Koper was founded in 1850 and suffered a number of episodes of loss, especially during the Second World War. Possible reasons for which the book left the library could be theft or loss resulting from evacuation—but also deaccession. Contact is currently being made with the institution in an attempt to clear this matter up. A regular deaccession of the book from the library must be documented somewhere and would normally be recorded in the book itself.

It is fortunate if clues as to former ownership have been preserved, but this is not always the case. Investigations have also revealed that ownership marks have sometimes been actively deleted. Whereas a book’s signature that has been covered over with a book seller’s label can be deciphered by shining a light through the page, identifying a distinguishing mark (probably a stamp) that has been cut out is impossible. It is obvious that this crude and inelegant form of deletion was carried out to conceal the book’s provenance.

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