Die ersten Sammler

Vessela Nozharova

Vessela Nozharova: A Short History of Art Collecting in Bulgaria

A key role in the cultivation of the arts in Bulgaria in the first years after the Liberation was played by foreigners. The first works purchased with the intent of starting a collection – three landscapes by the artist Ivan Angelov – belonged to the Slovenian owner of a well-known café in Sofia. In the 1890s, the sale of paintings at exhibitions gradually became common practice. (An exhibition of Alexander Bozhinov and Petar Morozov in 1908, for example, sold out completely.) In a time when the state and its institutions did not have the resources to take an active interest in the arts, private collecting began to be seen by the Bulgarian press as a way of encouraging the local art scene. These early collections were the property of senior civil servants, politicians, merchants and industrialists. Oil paintings were valued above all else and could be seen in the homes of many affluent families. Until the end of the First World War, the foreign works in these collections were mostly by French, English, Austrian, Italian and German artists from the second half of the 19th century. Only a few collectors could afford the purchase of sculpture and one of them was Prince Ferdinand himself, who in 1908 was crowned as Tsar of Bulgaria.

The art collection of the Royal Palace can be dated back to 1887, the year Ferdinand arrived in the country. Part of it he brought along with him from Austria, while another part – which included Bulgarian and foreign artists (mostly 18th and 19th century Frenchmen, Austrians and Spaniards) – was acquired locally. Ferdinand was also a passionate botanist and philatelist. The Royal household made a point of purchasing Bulgarian artists from exhibitions both in Sofia and in the country. The acquisitions were exhibited in the Tsar’s palaces and country houses in Sofia, Varna, Krichim and Banya, and in his hunting lodge in the Rila Mountain. Among them were works by popular artists of the period, such as Otto Horeishi, Anton Piotrovski, Jaroslav Věšín, Ivan Mrkvička, Anton Mitov, Nikola Mihaylov, Haralampi Tachev, Stefan Badjov and others. In 1897, Ferdinand showed seven paintings from his personal collection at the Third Exhibition of the Association for the Support of the Arts in Bulgaria, which was the first public viewing of privately owned artworks in the country. When he abdicated at the end of the First World War, he took a large part of his collection with him to Germany. Another part later entered the collection of the National Art Gallery.

The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and the First World War dampened collectors’ enthusiasm, yet it was during this period that European symbolism and the Vienna Secession influenced the country through the works of German, Romanian, Austrian and Hungarian artists. The post-war years saw a renewed interest in art collecting. Private collections grew bigger and more varied, comprising not just oil painting, but prints, drawings, sculpture and the applied arts, which flourished during this period. (Sculptor Andrey Nikolov’s exhibition of 1922 and ceramicist Stoyan Raynov’s exhibition of 1929 were fully sold out to private individuals.) Under the influence of the Vienna Secession, Bulgarian artists developed a decorative style of their own which incorporated elements from the Byzantine tradition.

In the 1920s, the circle of collectors in Bulgaria widened. The big industrialists and merchants were now joined by the intellectuals – writers, artists, doctors and other public figures. Among the notable collectors of this period were writer Mihail Kremen, entrepreneur Todor Gubidelnikov, composer Petko Staynov, architect Kiro Marichkov and literary critic and editor Dimo Kyorchev. Up until the end of the Second World War, most private collections were based in Sofia. A few smaller ones were located in Plovdiv and Rousse. In this period, many state institutions and big private companies founded art collections of their own and started running their own exhibitions. A few private collectors had a consistent interest in gathering as many works of a selected artist as possible. Grigor Vassilev, Stoyan Pipev and Kiro Marichkov, for example, owned all the works of the prematurely deceased Nikola Petrov (1881–1916) between the three of them.

The collection of Ivan Evstatiev Geshov (1849–1924) was one of the oldest and best known private art collections in Bulgaria. Geshov was an economist, banker, politician and journalist. He began collecting art around the Liberation War, buying his first artworks during his trips around Europe. The Bulgarian artists represented in his collection were well-known names such as Ivan Mrkvička, Nikola Petrov, Boris Shats, Andrey Nikolov, Boris Denev, Nikola Tanev and others. After Geshov’s death, his collection had a tragic fate. Most of it was destroyed during the British and American Air Forces’ bombardment of Sofia in the 1940s, when bomb fell on the Geshevs’ home in the Bulgarian capital. Another part was passed down to family members, some of whom emigrated with what they’d inherited. . 

Another large collection of the period was that of lawyer, politician and journalist Grigor Vassilev. When he started it in the 1920s, Vassilev’s idea was eventually to found a gallery in Sofia in the example of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The collection – which included oil paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings – reached maturity in the 1930s, but the building design he commissioned for the future gallery was never built (he died in 1942). In addition to collecting, Vassilev served as patron of various artistic projects, loved to give out Bulgarian art as a gift to visiting foreign friends, and donated 37 canvases to the National Museum (now the National Art Gallery). Some of the artists represented in his collection were Nikola Petrov, Sirak Skitnik, Alexander Moutafov, Goshka Datsov, Dimitar Gyudjenov, Atanas Tassev and Dechko Uzunov. Vassilev had a habit of purchasing thematically-grouped works by the same artist, which is how he came into the ownership of some of Nikola Petrov’s best-known paintings such as The National Theatre, Portrait of Andreychin, Erma and others; a large collection of war sculptures by Ivan Lazarov (later donated to the War Museum); sculptures by Andrey Nikolov and Lyubomir Dalchev, as well as prints and drawings by Vassil Zahariev, Konstantin Shturkelov, Sirak Skitnik and others. He also had a large collection of artists’, writers’ and actors’ correspondence. A big part of Grigor Vassilev’s collection is now owned by the National Gallery, the Sofia City Gallery and the National Museum of History. 

The collection of industrialist and dimplomat Georgi Lichev was the original property of Count Theodore Zichy of Budapest. It found its way into Bulgaria in 1926, when Lichev married Count Zichy’s heiress. The collection comprised oil paintings by West European artists such as Raphael, Issac van Ostade (1621–1649), Nicolaes Berchem (1620–1683), David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), Gabriël Metsu (1629–1667), Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), Jan van Goyen (1596–1656) and Jose de Ribera (1591-1652). There were also works paintings, sculpture and works on paper by German and Czech artists. Some of these works were later bought by the Bulgarian state and are now part of the collection of the Gallery of Foreign Art in Sofia.

In the decades preceding the communist coup of 1944, there were several other large collections in Bulgaria. Among them were those of tobacco merchant Alexander Chaprashikov (1878—unknown), politician Dimitar Gichev (1893–1964) and lawyer Totyu Goubensky (1899–1996). Over the length of 65 years (the longest stretch of time in Bulgarian history devoted to a private collection), Goubensky gathered more than 500 oil paintings and prints by 80 Bulgarian and foreign artists. In 1982, he donated his collection to his native town of Tryavna, where it is currently on permanent view.