Among Munich’s neighbourhoods, Franzosenviertel is the one which offers quaint antique charm. We crossed the Isar in search of some especially elegant pieces and did a little time travelling across continents with an antiques dealer.
If there’s one district in Munich that could be described as picturesque, it is Haidhausen. Everyone loves the village-like character around Wiener Platz, which is surrounded by lanes of ancient little houses and architecture from Munich’s earlier eras. The city has ensured that these gems cannot be sold to investors, but are instead reserved for small local crafts businesses and artists, who continue to fill them with life. The many boutiques selling old knick-knacks and vintage furniture here also play a part in ensuring that Haidhausen is justly referred to as the “antique of Munich’s districts”.
Ask anyone who knows old Haidhausen well and has a strong connection with the area, and they won’t hesitate for long if you’re trying to find a genuine antique shop: one answering that description has been operating for fifty years on Johannisplatz, with its long-established stand of bamboo, just around the corner from Wiener Platz. Antik Reichenmeier is every bit as quaint as the neighbourhood it’s in. The shop is not even 50 square metres in size, and is experienced as a narrow passageway that draws visitors back, step by step, to ancient times and epic histories from all over the world.
When you first step inside, you are transported to Asia and greeted by Guan Ying, a smiling Chinese goddess from the 19th century carved and set in wood. The owner Rainer Reichenmeier is an expert – not only on all things Asian – and immediately starts to enthusiastically effuse about a “very unusual, very rare” Japanese lampstand, made from a painted brass and ceramic relief – depicting a palace scene from court life in Japan, featuring three Samurai warriors on the front and a teacher with his pupils on the reverse – which was adapted and electrified some time over a hundred years ago.
The many boutiques selling old knick-knacks and vintage furniture here also play a part in ensuring that Haidhausen is justly referred to as the “antique of Munich’s districts”.
He tells us that, “goblins, demons, folklore creatures, little devils, mythical creatures” are typical in ornamentation from China and Japan, where originally no items were produced purely for decorative purposes. “The scenes always have a special meaning, a narrative and mythological background.” And then he tells us a well-known secret among antiques dealers: “There are more quality pieces to be found here in Europe now than in their country of origin, China,” Reichenmeier explains. “Today, rich Chinese customers come to Europe and buy up artefacts that were produced in their own country and exported centuries ago.”
Reichenmeier also has plenty to say about his neighbourhood, which has become a precious rarity much like the items he sells: “It used to be that the people living around my shop had little money and took a great interest in their neighbours. That has only changed a bit. Shoemakers, blacksmiths and grocers still lined Wiener Platz during the 1980s; but needs have changed since then.
The bakery has been replaced by a beauty parlour, and the old milliner’s shop is now a fashion store. This is where the new Haidhausen society comes together these days. But that interest that people take in their neighbours is still palpable, I think. And fortunately for me, there is also an interest in antiques from all over the world – and the means to be able to buy them. People come to look, chat – and buy!”
He points us toward a magnificent red table caddy. It was produced by applying fifty layers of Chinese lacquer, one after another, with each left to dry between coats. Elaborate landscapes and scenes were then carved into the various layers. “Chinese lacquer is a type of tree resin,” Reichenmeier explains, “and you can’t actually get it any more. None of the artists are left either, because nobody pays them to do this kind of work. It would have taken the artist a couple of months to create a tin like this.”
The market for antiques reflects, as it always has, the general wealth of a society. Reichenmeier’s stock comes from sales by private individuals who visit the shop, or it is purchased at markets or private property liquidations. He restores pieces as needed and sometimes sells on commission too, meaning he has been a direct witness to economic developments in Germany and particularly Munich.
“When the economic miracle got going here at the end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s, you could see there was money again and people were collecting again,” he remembers as he lovingly strokes an 18th-century French mantle clock. “Back then people were collecting carved candlesticks, and Munich school classics with the famous cows beside Starnberger See lake. Later they began collecting tin – painted beer steins from the 18th and 19th centuries with tin lids.
So as an antiques dealer, Reichenmeier has not only observed a shift in the residential structure around his neighbourhood, but also changes in tastes and interests.
But that is all over now – those collectors are dying off and the ones who are still alive are content and have all of their pieces at home. And when they do pass on, their heirs will take over their houses and might keep a beautiful painting, perhaps, then ring me or come in and say ‘That’s not our style any more, you can take it!’”
So as an antiques dealer, Reichenmeier has not only observed a shift in the residential structure around his neighbourhood, but also changes in tastes and interests. “One thing that is not at all popular any more, for example, is religious folk art: the suffering Madonna or Jesus on the cross. On the other hand, you’ll still always find a buyer for a smiling cherub or a happy Madonna.”
His customers today are not the traditional collectors of the past. The young people are impulse buyers.
The last boost he witnessed was after the reunification of Germany, when there was another influx from the east. “There was a real mania back then for old toys, Märklin tin train sets, Biedermeier furniture, paintings. Those were always sold out for a while.” His customers today are not the traditional collectors of the past. The young people who are moving to Haidhausen come in and say: “I like this bronze – I have a lovely spot for it in my flat,” or, “this 1900 Viennese art nouveau magazine rack would look great in my place”. The shop’s new customers are impulse buyers.
The age of the traditional collector, then, is over – much like that of the small craftsmen and their little cottages with no electricity or running water. But in fact they do still exist – especially in Haidhausen. Even the antique dealers are changing with the times and in particular buying and selling jewellery at the moment (“that always sells and will always sell”). There’s only one thing that hasn’t changed in all these years: you can still rely on being offered a cup of coffee when you visit the shop.