Johannes Mikkel was one of the most versatile art collectors in Estonia in the second half of the 20th century.
Mikkel was born on 26 October 1907 in Mäksa Parish, Tartu County in southern Estonia as the son of a merchant. He became interested in art while studying first at a commercial school and later at a technical high school in Tartu. At the University of Tartu, he attended lectures on philosophy, literature, art history and folklore.
“Naturally, I tried to partake of everything beautiful that people have managed to create over time: this must be common to all young people with good upbringings. I never imagined that I could be an art historian, yet I was captivated by the history of art and visual arts throughout my high school studies and then all of the decades of my life up to the present day. It has not been a hobby for me but rather a need, just like one needs to read fine literature and listen to the most beautiful compositions.
My vocation is in philosophy, and my profession in commerce” (J. Mikkel)
Mikkel started to collect art between the two world wars, which was a good time for a student of limited means, as antique dealerships were full of works of art that had belonged to ruined Baltic German and Russian noblemen. Mikkel managed to purchase a valuable book collection, about 360 old prints (by Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer, Marcantonio Raimondi, Rembrandt and others) and several remarkable paintings. Unfortunately, his great collection was destroyed in the war. In 1944, Mikkel moved from Tartu to Tallinn. Until his retirement in 1978, he worked as a manager of various stores (for instance the commission sales store Heli in Väike-Karja Street and the furniture store Mööbel). His interest in collecting art never waned. Mikkel visited antique dealers in Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi and Central Asia. Besides old prints and paintings, he became interested in 18th-century porcelain and ceramics from China, Russia and Western Europe. While acquiring the works of art, Johannes Mikkel never followed a specific system or a narrow field of interest. His wonderful collector’s instinct was guided by intuition, education and, especially, enthusiasm.
“Someone once asked me how I had managed to find and purchase paintings by well-known Western European artists. I replied truthfully that I had never looked for them. Mostly, they had come to me, especially the most valuable ones, and begged to be added to my collection. Sometimes I have paid a few roubles but more often than not I have got them for free. For art has this wonderful ability to end up with people who love art” (J. Mikkel).