12/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter
MOUNT PENN, Pa. — John Klopp had a German pen pal when he was a student at Ephrata High School in Ephrata, Pa., in the late 1950s. Her name was Hildegarde Schultze and she was from the Hartz Mountain region of Germany. Although he never met Fräulein Schultze, Klopp said she instilled in him a passion for collecting that is still going strong after more than half a century.
The objects of Klopp’s passion are hand-carved wooden miniatures, called “Erzgebirges” for the region where they originated. “Ore mountain” is the English translation of “erz” (ore) and “gebirge” (mountain). The region, near the German-Czech Republic border, became an important mining center as early as the 12th century with the discovery of easily recoverable silver deposits. Later, cobalt, tin and uranium (which was used in the production of ornamental glass), were mined.
From the beginning of the mining industry, harsh winters kept the miners at home for months at a time. During those idle hours and days, the miners carved. There was plenty of wood available, and as the ore ran out there was more time available to carve. The region became a major manufacturing region for toys, which were in demand around the world.
The production of Erzgebirges was then, and largely remains, a cottage industry. Some families make large pyramids, Christmas-tree shaped wooden structures which hold candles. Atop the pyramids are fans which rotate as heated air from the candles rises through the fan blades.
Klopp has friends who collect pyramids, which can be big, costly, fragile and take up a lot of space. But Klopp likes miniatures — animals, people, carts, houses — many of which are an inch or less in height. He can, and he has, put dozens of his miniatures in the space occupied by one medium-size pyramid. There are artful Erzgebirge arrangements in every room of Klopp’s house. And there are simple groups of the miniatures crowding every inch of some of his shelves. One glass-front curio case has 80 to 100 figurines on one shelf, and the case has five shelves. And there were more shelves in other parts of his house.
Klopp has done considerable research on the figurines, and said they date back to the 1780s. Most were carved from the local forest of cedar and white pine trees. Gradually recognized as German folk art, entire families cooperated to produce the finished pieces. It’s a business model that began generations ago and continues to this day. In the German town of Seiffen alone there are some 50 family owned and operated businesses producing Erzgebirges. One family member might cut out the blanks, another might sand the blanks smooth, and another might do the painting.
The most popular and most collectable Erzgebirges are miniature animals, horse-drawn carts, sleds, houses and people.
Klopp has hundreds of each, and a story for almost every one. He has found Erzgebirges a few miles down the road from Ephrata, he’s found them in North Carolina, Maine, Boston and New York City. And, he has picked some up in his travels to Germany. Klopp worked in finance for Unisys, the computer company, in Blue Bell, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. His job required frequent travel and he still loves to go places.
He had thought on one of his trips that he might meet Hildegarde Schultze, who worked as a librarian, but she died before Klopp traveled to Germany.
Every place he goes, Klopp looks for Erzgebirges. Early pieces can be quite expensive, he said, and contemporary pieces can also command a good price. But Klopp said it’s an affordable hobby because there aren’t a lot of people who collect the miniatures, and antiques dealers sometimes don’t want to bother with them and will sell them at good prices.
Luck can come into play, also. Klopp said his cousin bought a box of broken Erzgebirges at auction for a few dollars and gave them to him. “There were enough parts in the box to put 10 complete wagons together,” he said.
Most of his treasures have come from antiques shops. Some dealers are familiar with the miniatures, some aren’t.
One of Klopp’s favorite stories is about a find in a Maine shop. It’s a tiny castle. After he paid for the item, Klopp noticed a drawer in the base of the piece, and opened it to find a dozen tiny soldiers, all brightly painted and in excellent condition.
Klopp’s advice to the novice Erzgebirge buyer is, “Keep your eyes open. Poke around. If you find them, buy them.”
Dick Wanner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org