He was a butcher and an art collector during Communist rule in Hungary – By day, Istvan Kövesi ran a kosher meat shop in Budapest, but his secret passion was collecting fine works of art.
Between 1960 and 1980 he bought 230 paintings. The collection includes a who’s who of Hungary’s finest 20th century artists and was only recently made public for the first time.
‘‘It is easy to understand the reason why all collectors kept their art secret, because they were bought with money from their private businesses. During the Communist era really only the state-run shops and factories were allowed to collect. The private sector had only limited permission to do this. The richest people were usually taxi drivers, hairdressers, and small food and vegetable shopkeepers, like Istvan Kövesi with his meat shop,” says the collection’s Curator Tamas Kieselbach.
In order to buy such works, often costing more than 80 times his official monthly salary, Kövesi diverted money from his butcher’s business, bypassing Budapest’s official auction houses.
According to experts, that practice of buying and selling paintings outside the system still exists.
Speaking to euronews journalist Gábor Ács, art historian Peter Molnos said:
‘‘Behind us you can see the only place where under Communism you could buy and sell paintings legally. But, collectors could walk next door to the Luxor cafe, exactly the same place where the gallery is located today, and they could make arrangements with private dealers over what they wanted to buy.’‘
But what prompted Kövesi to collect so many fine works?
One theory according to historians is the butcher tried to escape the everyday reality of Communism and his experiences both before and during the second world war through art.
‘‘During the 1930s the so-called ‘Jewish law’ in Hungary meant Jews were restricted in what they could do. Kövesi was also deported to a Nazi death camp, but he survived. When he returned to Hungary his home was abandoned and everybody in his family had been killed in the Holocaust. Later he met a woman, who survived Auschwitz, and they married. After the Second World War Kövesi believed the suffering was over.”
The art collector and butcher died in 1981 but his collection has remained intact to this day.