A Leipziger in Potsdam

Gerhard Karsch is restoring Hohenzollern furniture in a masterly manner.

Lord Carrington, former Secretary General for NATO and later head of Christie’s auction house, had one personal wish after visiting the newly renovated Baroque splendor of Charlottenburg castle. He liked the seemingly simple wall lanterns with mirrors and goldplated candlesticks. Prussia’s first queen, Sophie Charlotte, ordered these lanterns three hundred years ago in great numbers. He liked them so much that he wished he could have replicas. Now he could be helped.

Three yaers ago on Mommsenstrasse, in the northern outskirts of Leipzig, Gerhard Karsch opened up a metal workshop the envy of every engraver, gold-plater and furniture maker. There he is restoring and rekonstructing furniture, ornamental mountings, and objects of 17th and 18th century art using up-to-date techniques and old craft. Immediately after the so-called Wall he had been repairing the war-damaged lanterns of Charlottenburg and newly crafting missing ones. Because of great costs and possible dangers to health, gold plating by fire had once been a privilege only for kings an nobles. With the help of a chemist, Karsch has built a technically lavish facility that enables him to give even bigger objects the inimitable shine of gold plating by fire.

The war and the post-war years did harsh damage to the more than thirty facilities of the Prussian castles and gardens trust. There would be life-long employment for a multitalented master of restoration such as Gerhard Karsch. But he has two problems. The first and main problem is the limited budget of the trust. The second problem is the limitation of his own capacity. Karsch is lacking time and money to train students according to his high standards. So far his only help is Anette Haehne, a young engraver, who is doing a correspondence degree course in furniture restoration. She has been working for more than a year on her journeyman’s project, a replica of a Boulle clock. The sympathetic Saxon, Karsch, almost apologetically states that even famous furniture makes of the 18th century hardly acquired any wealth. In fact, some even went bankrupt becauce of overdue payments from their noble clients.

Karsch has always been looking for duties himself. Up to the Wall he had been working for the Leipzig state-owned auction house. There he foremostly studied the restoration of baroque furniture. The most valuable pieces were often sold to the west by Schalk-Golodkowski for foreign currency. By the time the auction house was shut down after the Wall, Karsch had set up his own firm. More than one thousand working hours were required to single-handedly re-build a Potsdam Rococo chest of drawers by Heinrich Wilhelm Spindler. The chest consisted of coloured wood and Ormolu ornamental mountings. In the workshops of renowned 18th century furniture makers there were specialists for every single step: the body, marquetry, and ornamental mountings. Karsch introduced himself to the administration of the Potsdam castles with this piece of art. That was the key to more than a ten-years working relationship leading him now to the Marble Palace (built by Friedrich William II from 1787-1791). Immediately after the war the palace served as a casino to Soviet officers. Later it served as a Military Museum of the former East Germany. A good many Soviet soldiers apparently thought the gold-plated ornaments, ornamental mountings, door handles and lanterns were pure gold and just took them.

A pair of two-meter high candelabras with mahagony-shafts and ten Ormulu candlesticks, once in Potsdam’s city castle, became evidence of perfekt restoration. Karsch had to reconstruct some of the broken sticks totally. He carved decoration leaves out of lime wood as a positive mould for the wheels of Frederic William II’s state coach. As well, he artfully wood carved the flowers festoons for the chimney of the Marble Palace’s Landscape Room. These then have to be cast and fire gold-plated as well a big commission which serves his mastery.

Juliane Stephan, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 10. november 2002, Nr. 45