Achim Middelschulte is more than comfortable with heavy equipment. The former chief of Ruhrgas AG studied mining – something of a family tradition. But when it comes to tiny, delicate figures with doll faces, he shows a gentler side.
“I carefully hold the figures only by the head to avoid breaking anything,” he says.
The 70-year-old is the proud owner of an extensive porcelain collection, but he’s particularly enthusiastic about the “Würzburg Miners,” four little musicians who play the triangle, flute, tambourine and bassoon.
Mr. Middelschulte has pursued his interest in historical porcelain with mining motifs for 40 years. His collection, currently on display at the Hetjens Museum in Düsseldorf, features 100 items. As well as the figurines are plates and cups from various porcelain works, particularly the famous Meissen factory.
His collection is considered the most extensive of its kind in the world. About 10 years ago, a Russian buyer offered to purchase his entire collection, but Mr. Middelschulte declined.
“At that time, I decided to keep everything together,” he explains. “My wife and I set up a foundation to which we have gradually transferred all the pieces.”
Like his involvement in the energy business, Mr. Middelschulte’s passion for porcelain was passed down the family line – from his grandfather and great uncle.
But collectors’ motives are as varied as their collections.
It might be the allure of obscure technology or the value of rarity, as with power tool entrepreneur Hans Peter Stihl, who collects model trains.
For Dirk Markus, head of the holding company Aurelius, it was a semester abroad that sparked his interest in Soviet-era posters.
“The chance purchase awakened my interest. After only three or four years I had almost 100 items, and wanted to become number one in the world.”
And sometimes a particular interest is awakened by chance. For Dieter Philippi, co-founder of the Saarland-based IT wholesaler Herweck, a stroll through Rome launched a life-long obsession with religious headgear.
Today Mr. Philippi, 53, owns some 670 caps, cardinal hats, yarmulkes, turbans and other items from Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Judaism.
Among them is a pope’s white silk cap. Mr. Philippi acquired it in 2014, along with a certificate of authenticity from the Vatican. For an idea of what it’s worth, the current offer for a papal skullcap at the online auction house Catawiki is €10,000, or about $11,000.
Mr. Philippi, who says he is a “Catholic and churchgoer,” has been collecting since 1998, ever since “a cardinal’s beret in shimmering red silk,” caught his eye and in a shop window in the Italian capital. He snapped it up.
“The chance purchase awakened my interest,” he recalls. “After only three or four years I had almost 100 items, and wanted to become number one in the world.”
Collecting is like business, he says. To succeed, you must offer something unique.
But that seems to be where the similarities between Mr. Philippi’s profession and his collection end.
“IT and telecommunications are one of the fastest-paced businesses,” he says. “Brief lapses of attention can put you at a huge competitive disadvantage.”
The forms and materials of religious headgear, on the other hand, have scarcely changed over 500 years. They are among “the slowest products,” says Mr. Philippi.
He set up a website for his collection in 2000. Five years ago he published a 727-page book on it and now plans a museum. There is to be a permanent exhibition at the Benedictine Tholey Abbey in the Saarland.
The head of Aurelius investing, Dirk Markus, said his weakness for Soviet posters started 25 years ago when he minored in Slavic studies in college.
A native of Regensburg in Bavaria, Mr. Markus spent his fourth semester in Russia and was struck by posters in the kitchenette of his dormitory. The slogans were simple, along the lines of: “The diligent build up socialism.” Or “The lazy do the work of the enemy.”
When the posters were taken down, Mr. Markus asked the janitor if he could have one. “That’s how it all began,” he remembers.
He was, and remains, fascinated by how complex issues can be simplified into pithy statements and pure colors. At first he found most of his Soviet-era posters at flea markets. Once he even exchanged a Coca-Cola t-shirt for one. Today he buys mostly at second-hand bookshops and online.
He now owns almost 500 posters. Many are from the Soviet Union, others from Vietnam, the German Democratic Republic or Cuba.
Most of the collection is stored in London, and Mr. Markus estimates its value as a five-figure sum. He doesn’t know exactly.
“The most I’ve ever paid for a poster was around €4,000,” says the 45-year-old. “This is not a financial investment.”
But one thing occupies the minds of all collectors: The more pieces they own, the more gaps they become aware of.
For example, Mr. Philippi, who collects religious headwear, doesn’t own a “koukoulion” — the traditional headdress worn by patriarchs in the Russian Orthodox Church.
He said he has contacted the patriarch’s private secretary, who said the inquiry was inappropriate. “But I’m not giving up,” Mr. Philippi insists. “There’s always a way.”
Mr. Middelschulte, the former Ruhrgas chief, has the same challenge with his porcelain. The engineer and entrepreneur lacks the so-called “Water Diviner” that belongs to the mining group by the famous Meissen modeler Johann Joachim Kändler.
“It’s the only figure from the series I don’t have,” says the collector, who is not even sure the piece still exists.
But Mr. Middelschulte is sure of one thing: His fragile possessions will have an audience.
After the current exhibition in Düsseldorf, they will travel to Chemnitz in the fall, then on to Iphofen in Franconia and afterwards to Aachen. There, they will become part of the permanent exhibition at the German Mining Museum in Bochum.