City Stories: A Tale Of Rivalry, Wealthy Women and Ceramics

The rivalry between Cologne and Düsseldorf is well known. It encompasses all aspects of social, cultural and economic interaction between the two cities; probably even down to the weather. And in 1906 that rivalry secured for Düsseldorf, the most comprehensive museum of ceramic history in the world.

In his will, art collector Laurenz Heinrich Hetjens left his entire ceramics collection to the city of Düsseldorf, the only stipulation being that if the construction of an appropriate museum was not completed within one year, the collection would be given instead to the city of Cologne. The museum opened on time.

Hetjens was a man from a humble background who married well. His wife was a fourteen year old widow, Maria Catherina Regnier who had inherited a fortune from her first husband, a wealthy Belgian manufacturer. With Maria Catherina’s money at his disposal, Hetjens set about pursuing his love of ceramic art. And Hetjens was a true devotee. He not only purchased pieces, but also led archaeological digs in search of Rhenish pottery.

By the time of his death in 1906, Hetjens had amassed a collection of around 2,000 pieces. Over the following hundred years, the collection has expanded to around 20, 000 pieces that span 8,000 years; both through direct acquisition and donation from other personal collections. The current collection dates back to the very beginning of the ceramic period featuring rare Anatolian pieces from around 6,000 BCE. It reflects all the key intervening periods and covers all continents. It is considered to be the single most comprehensive collection of ceramics in the world.

Visiting the museum feels like an exploration in itself. What seems at first glance to be a small number of (albeit incredibly significant) pieces displayed in a single room, instead unfolds into a vast array, as you venture further and further into the myriad of rooms and floors that house this surprising collection.

Tucked away at the quieter end of the Alstadt, the Hetjens Museum is one of the lower profile museums in the city. It should, however, be on the must see list, for all visitors to the city.