Before the recent opening of the »Robbe & Berking Yacht Heritage Centre« in Flensburg, anyone looking for a particular nautical book or simply searching for historic information about a yacht or a designer would probably have made the pilgrimage to Wiesbaden where the largest maritime yachting library in the world could then be found. The foundations of the house of 69-year-old Volker Christmann literally groaned under the weight of the thousands of books he had collected there. That library has since been moved and is now the nucleus of the Yachting Heritage Centre. Collecting things though is an addiction and three years on Volker’s house is once more slowly filling up with books but he has also found a new direction for his kleptomania: historic yacht club buttons.
Christmann was introduced at an early age into boating by his father who was a many times German Champion in canoes. In the early 50s his father bought his first real boat and slowly moved on to larger yachts. One of them was a deep drafted wooden classic from the 1930s with which they once entered a harbour on the Rhine and then were stuck there for the rest of the summer because the water never was high enough again to let them out! Initially their sailing ground was the River Rhine but in 1962 his father had a 10-metre long »Delphin« built in Hamburg, a sistership to the vessel that Elga and Ernst-Jürgen Koch sailed around the world with, and with that they did forays into Holland and further onwards, so introducing young Volker to the world of sailing on open water and the sea.
Ron Valent: How did you start with yachting? Volker Christmann: My father died quite young in 1980 when he was only 60 years old. Together with him I had once built a wooden boat which was a nice bonding experience between father and son but later when girls arrived on the scene he became a bit jealous, we had a fight over something trivial and I left to live in Munich and never came back. I bought a boat together with a friend who had plenty of money but didn’t know how to sail. I did but had no money so it was a good deal as I could do anything I liked with that boat. It was a 15-metre long Klipperaak from 1898. I think I went up and down the Rhone to France at least 15 times with it. Later I bought an Abeking & Rasmussen 11 KR yacht. She was the Königin, a famous yacht and sister ship to Rubin I. A condition of the sale was that we were not allowed to keep the name so we called her Regina which is simply Latin for Königin.
RV: Was this the turning point in your life? VC: When I was looking at this 11 KR yacht I said to my girlfriend, who is also my present wife, that if we buy this yacht we will have to go sailing all summer, if not then we shouldn’t buy the boat. I had a company with a number of shops selling sports equipment, a company building shop interiors and a wholesale business in antiques. All in all I had over 30 people working for me and this was something that had to be run on a day to day basis. It of course wouldn’t really work if we were off sailing for six months every year. So in 1990 I sold everything and bought a lot of real estate instead. To this day that is what pays the bills. It was the smartest thing I ever did. In Mainz and Wiesbaden we own a number of flats. It sounds more impressive than it is of course as it still means taking care of them and such but I cannot complain. Compared to poor people I am rich but compared to most rich people I am poor! I have had quite a few different boats. Classic, modern and even a tugboat! We sailed for 20 years in the Med. First with the Klipperaak Bonny and then Königin. In 1991 we sold her. Then I bought a Westerly 36 and lived on board down in the harbour while I renovated an old house up on a hill on a Greek island. After twelve years we sold her and bought a Helmsman 47 and sailed the Baltic for another eight years but then we realised we were getting a bit older and when the wind pipes up to force 6 or 7 and you have to throw yourself at a winch it doesn’t work anymore. So we sold the boat and bought Nixe, a steel Brandsma 47, a classic styled motor yacht that I now have. That was supposed to be the last boat before I gave up yachting but because we have moved to the Azores more or less permanently now I have put it up for sale. I of course miss sailing so I am sure we will buy something like a little daysailer soon. All in all a life in boats! We sailed over 100,000 miles at sea and were often away for months at a time. In the winters I collected books and in the summer I went sailing! That was my life! In between I was also associated with saving the 12mR Anita. She had belonged to the ›Segelkameradschaft Ostsee‹ for 25 years but was really in a bad condition. Below the waterline she was completely rotten. I was approached to help with the project and chosen as chairman of a separate GmbH which coordinated her restoration. The ›Segelclub Rheingau‹ became the sole owner. Together with my friends I brought together about half of what was needed for the restoration while a large number of volunteers from the local club brought together the rest. She was then transported by truck to Gilleleje in Denmark where Niels Anderson restored her. She now sails once more with the growing fleet of 12-metres in the Baltic and takes part in all the races.
RV: How did you start collecting books? VC: In 1990 after I sold my businesses I was still young and needed something to do. A hobby. I had inherited 100 nautical books from my father together with a large number of old bound copies of the magazine ›Yacht‹ from 1940 to 1960 or so. So I said well let’s see if I can collect the other 100 or so books that I thought had been written about yachting. I would then have the best collection of books there was. But of course I soon realised that there were far more than just 200 books on yachting so my collection kept growing and growing. In 1998 I bought a computer as I was sometimes buying books that I already had and I simply wanted to make a list of all my books so that wouldn’t happen any more. The best way to do that was with a computer. But with that computer I discovered the internet and all the various book sites. That was the beginning of the end! At one point I was online 24 hours a day ordering books from every corner of the planet.
RV: And that was all in this house? VC: I bought books day and night from all over the world. Australia, New Zealand, America – everywhere. I had bought this house in 1979. It was really big and so initially it was not just for me and my wife. Some rooms were rented out but as the book collection grew in the 90s I needed more and more space so one by one they all had to move out. I had special bookcases built so I could fit even more books in and it just kept on going. We would drive to Zurich once a month where there were over 30 antique stores. There was a company there that bought complete interiors of houses where the owners had died and there were no known relatives. They at one point had thousands of books and simply sold them off for 2 DM each. Every Monday dealers would show up for various parts of this stock, also bookdealers, but nobody was interested in nautical books so I had the pick of the lot. In the end I had over 10,000 yachting books in my house! It obviously evolved from a hobby to a form of insanity. Whenever I saw something that was affordable I bought it.
RV: But then Oliver Berking came along and told you about his vision to install a European Yachting Heritage Centre and convinced you that this would be a worthy new home for all these books? VC: Well he didn’t buy my whole library as I had a lot of doubles that I kept. But in the end he took about 7,500 books. It took two trucks, each with 7.5 tons of books and magazines and 218 transport boxes to move it. The centre of gravity of Germany has certainly moved north. Over the years various people have approached me to buy the collection or just get it for free. Initially I didn’t want to sell but then I realised that I wouldn’t live forever and that I had to find a good home for the collection. I didn’t want to give it to a club or something as I am certain they wouldn’t appreciate its value and after a few years it would have been pulled apart and lost. A lot of books that I bought you could see from the inside cover that they were once owned by various yacht clubs around the world but they were simply thrown out or sold off to make space. For many years people in clubs like that were seemingly not interested in books and history … But then I talked to Oliver Berking. He had serious plans for the collection that would guarantee its survival but also make it available to other yachtsmen. That appealed to me. He then made me a fair offer that I felt acceptable and happy with and I hope and believe he also is. He got everything he wanted and now has a collection that is unique in the world.
RV: But you still have that collector’s itch?
VC: I still get goose pimples when I see a nice book being offered for sale somewhere on eBay or something. I simply must have it. Sometimes I don’t get it as of course more people are chasing books and after all these years I still get upset about not winning it. But that is the game. Oliver has said he will continue growing the collection with new books that come out. We agreed on that as it has to remain the most complete and up-to-date library in the world.
RV: What else have you collected? I see lots of nautical antiques in your house.
VC: I collected everything that had anything to do with sailing. I even collected stamps with images of yachts. I have said to Oliver that only books will not be enough. You have to also collect other things like I did. This house is full of nautical paintings, nautical antiques, etc. etc. A collection of compasses as well as over 40 sextants and octants. I have a big collection of old winches. They are fun to collect and also useful as doorstops. And there are loads of lovely ship models all over the house. If you see something that is so beautiful it is impossible for me to walk away, so I buy it! I have about 300 blueprints of yacht designs. A complete set here that I still have to catalogue. Also many rare black-and-white images. I also had over 180 glass negatives from Beken of Cowes that I sold to a collector. Every room in my house has a collection of something special. Special antique cups that were the prizes from various races all over the world. Tomorrow an enormous painting will arrive showing three classic yachts sailing. So I have to get rid of something else to create space on a wall!
RV:And now you have a new obsession? Yacht club buttons!
VC: Well my new disease started by chance. I bought a book called ›Yacht and rowing club buttons of the British Isles‹. When it came I looked at it and thought that it was quite funny. I had a few buttons of for instance the NRV and the KYC. All in all about 50 of them but that was just part of my total collection of nautical artefacts and antiques. What happened was that whenever I buy something I always try and contact the person selling it. So when I had a collector of buttons on the phone he mentioned he had a lot of doubles and I offered to buy them all! And now I have hundreds of them. It started as a joke but then I really wanted to get my hands on all of them. That is my disease. I now have more than 300 of them from all over the world. The variation in style and design is really interesting as well as the variation in sizes. For instance there are small ones for on the sleeves and larger ones for shirts and jackets. I think I once more have the biggest collection in the world of something rare but this all fits in just one cupboard!
This article appeared in GOOSE No. 22