Olaf Czaja. Hermann Baron Speck von Sternburg, and Highlights from his Collection
Born in Leeds, England, and educated at the ‘Princes’ School’, an elite boarding school in St Afra, Meissen, Sternburg served in the Second Saxon dragoons, taking part in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. He subsequently entered the diplomatic service, receiving his first commission as a military attaché at Washington, DC in 1884. During his diplomatic career he helped to find compromises in several political issues of the day, such as the Samoan crisis of 1887-89 and the Venezuela crisis of 1902-03.
Sternburg was sent to Peking in 1891 in the capacity of military attaché. Appointed as first secretary of the German legation a few years later, he stayed in Peking until 1896, spending some time travelling, mainly in the coastal province of Shandong, as well as the northeastern regions with their administrative centre Mukden, the homeland of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty. It was during this time that he began to build his collection of Chinese and Tibetan art. Some of these works might have been official gifts received from Qing officials, while others were purchased from art dealers and possibly from monks at Tibetan monasteries in Peking, although unfortunately, detailed information is not extant. Sternburg’s taste was eclectic: he collected all kinds of art and artisan craftwork, from sculpture and paintings to embroidery and lacquerware, but his main focus was on Chinese porcelain of the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. It is safe to say that in Germany, only a few collectors at that time would have had a collection of such scope and quality.