Mar/Apr 2019 edition
Issue #4 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine
I found the image by Michael Furman on the cover of this month’s issue intriguing. While I am recognized here as an “incidental” collector, when it comes to books about whose subjects I have an interest, I become a “determined” collector. What caught my eye, was a book about the Schlumpf brothers of France’s Mulhouse Museum fame, authored by a favorite British motorsports journalist of the period, Dennis Jenkinson. He was Stirling Moss’s navigator in the winning 1955 Mille Miglia, rated one of the greatest drives of all time. Thus, an opportunity to learn more about how the reclusive Schlumpfs lost their amazing collection, written by a man with impeccable motorsports credentials, was irresistible.
Before dawn on the morning of March 7th, 1977, a small group of 17 Schlumpf factory workers, forced their way past a single guard, and occupied the main building of the Schlumpf factory in Mulhouse, Alsace, France. What they discovered was unquestionably the best and largest collection of important automobiles ever assembled. And they had no idea this collection existed. It took two days to find and count all 577 automobiles, 122 of which were Bugattis.
Sometime before the end of that same year, this book, The Schlumpf Obsession, was published. One senses, reading it, that this book, was published to share, as quickly as possible, images of this rarely seen collection. With that in mind when reading, one can only imagine what those early readers were feeling when first examining this revelatory book, a virtual “King Tut’s Tomb”, of classic automobiles in their hands. It must have been stunning!
The facts familiar to most vintage automobile enthusiasts are not in dispute. The Schlumpf Brothers built the largest collection of Bugattis in
the world, and housed them in a number of mill buildings, in the several towns, in the Alsace region of France. At some point, they had a conflict with their workforce, declared bankruptcy, moved across the nearby Swiss border, and lost their property and collection to the Government, who subsequently opened a museum featuring their most notable possessions.
As with most of what we now refer to as “urban legend”, the Schlumpf brothers, Hans and Fritz’s story is far more complex than is generally known, and yet considerably less bizarre than we are led to believe. Measured by today’s standards, they were unquestionably eccentric. Likely, their eccentricity in the common man’s eyes was influenced by their enormous wealth, and the time and location in which they lived and worked.
Both boys were born near Milan, Italy, to a Swiss father and a German mother, who was born in Alsace, which was at that time a part of Germany. They claimed Swiss-German nationality.
The Alsace Region of France, which is famous for white wines and textiles, borders on Germany and Switzerland, and had for decades been possessed alternately by France and Germany. It was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, then Germany, and later returned to France after WWI. The Schlumpfs took over the major mills in 1939. The area was taken over again by the Germans during WWII, and returned to France once WWII was over. Despite German control of the area during that period, an obstinate Fritz Schlumpf refused to be cowed by German officialdom, and after the war, his obvious intransigence was well regarded by the French.
Their personal lives and relationships with their mother, and their lovers were tabloid messy, but they were wealthy and they survived. In the late 1940s, they began collecting automobiles, alongside statuary, mantelpieces, kayaks, and mounted antlers. In the following thirty years they built what was to become the best, and most important collection of vintage and classic automobiles, private or public... in history!
As their collection grew, they dedicated portions of their mills to house them, and hired craftspeople to maintain and repair them. Sadly for their business, the advent of low cost man-made textiles such as rayon, doomed their “wool empire” and with it their relationships with their workers, and then their unions, and eventually their government. The failure of their industry, their feudal mentality and refusal to interact with the unions with whom they had signed agreements, led to their eventual loss of most of what they had accumulated over 35 years.
By 1977, after numerous strikes and confrontations, the brothers fled to nearby Switzerland. The government of France declared the collection a national treasure and on the site of a Schlumpf mill in Mulhouse, opened a museum for the public.
The book is not so much a story book as a 189-page revelation of what was discovered in 1977! It contains 200 images of little and some never seen before cars. Some are old black and white images, and others are full-page color. Even today, just as in 1977, when this book was first published, it is quite amazing. One can only imagine the impact it had on a public who hardly knew these cars ever existed. Today, despite the fact that the novelty aspect of the book is lost, what remains is a snapshot in time of incredible automobiles, and extreme collecting.
The inescapable fact and a source of great comfort to true motorsports enthusiasts is the simple truth that the Schlumpfs accumulated these treasures, not as “investments” but because they loved them and enjoyed owning and maintaining them. A far cry from the current market thinking.
Used copies of the book are available and very reasonably priced with many of the specialty book shops who advertise in this magazine and online.
To read more great columns like this one from Peter Bourassa...
The Incidental Collector