German's home offers refuge to 3 000 maligned garden gnomes

2015-06-03 20:25
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Voelklingen - A German with a garden-gnome obsession has collected 3 000 of the little fellas and is running of space for the figurines in his modest two-storey house.

"I desperately need to expand," says Sven Berrar, 30, who has been acquiring the statuettes since he was a child.

"In the baby carriage, he always would point to them in the garden," recalled his mother Monika Berrar.

Garden statuary has been common for centuries, but the red-hat gnome was a 19th-century German invention.

They were inspired by memories of medieval wildcat miners: bearded men of small stature who wriggled down narrow mine shafts with lanterns to hack away at seams of gold and silver.

The red pointy hat is supposed to have been useful as an early-warning device to the miner that he was about to bump his head.

Berrar received his first gnome at 2 years of age - a plastic one from the hardware store.

"They were still in fashion back then," said Berrar, who began to shop for them - at flea markets and dealers - with his pocket money.

By 16 years of age, he had 1 000 gnomes.

"I was obsessed."

While other boys loved football, Berrar was busy gnome dealing.

"Back then, I thought he was crazy," admitted his mother.

Berrar's gnomes don't just hold pick-axes and shovels, but all kinds of tools. The oldest of the little guys is 125 years old.

Even though his private collection is already one of the two biggest in all of Germany, Berrar says: "I just cannot stop collecting them."

A master gardener by trade, he is especially interested in antique gnomes made of clay, not resin.

"I think it's fascinating how they were produced with incredible precision in every detail," says Berrar.

He points to two gnomes from 1920 playing cards. Their beards were engraved hair by hair. Berrar's senior gnome, from 1890, dates to the earlier years of gnome production in the German ceramic industry.

All gnome history is on his shelves - from the original German miner gnome in medieval poor-man garb to the classic lawn gnome with the watering can. 

Collector's item

He has one gnome with a knife in his back, a bare-bottomed gnome mooning and a great rarity, a female gnome.

"This is the most popular collector's item today, because she was only briefly produced," intones Berrar.

Gnome statues appeared as decoration in 18th century aristocratic gardens - when some ducal families even employed midgets and dwarves as servants - and went middle class in the late 19th century. Times change. Most Germans today regard a gnomed garden as vulgar.

"It's because the manufacturers progressively turned the gnomes into something corny," says Berrar defensively.

He thinks current resin models mass produced in Asia are a travesty of the upstanding German gnome of old.

"They have almost nothing in common with the true gnome."

That's why he is publicising his collection: to defend gnome honour.

Like fellow collector Maurice Puth.

"The special thing about the gnomes is that their reputation has changed so much. They used to be very highly regarded by affluent people, now they have gone down-market," the 30-year-old suburban Frankfurt electrician says sadly.

Puth has been collecting gnomes since childhood too, and also has more than 3 000, plus gnomic postcards.

When the classic gnome gradually vanished from respectable gardens, manufacturers began to fade away as well.

"We are the only ones in Germany who make terracotta gnomes now," says Reinhard Griebel, owner of the Philipp Griebel gnome manufacturing company in Graefenroda in Thuringia state. Griebel's company has existed since 1874, but only has three employees today.

"We work purely by hand and still make about 20 gnomes per day," said Griebel.

Half of those are exported. "Even the king of Thailand has some," says Griebel proudly. A true German gnome is a thing of value.

As gnomes evolve, the customers are changing, says an anthropologist and sociologist, Claudia Ruecker of Berlin, who is Germany's academic authority on gnomes. The old-style lawn gnome is moving indoors to offices and trendy lofts and wielding a smartphone or a laptop.

She thinks those ironic, post-modern gnomes are helping to break down the barrier between gnome haters and gnome lovers.

Puth and Berrar, rivals but friends, know no one in Germany with more gnomes than they have.

"The circle of collectors is small, but spread right around the world," said Berrar.

Berrar insists no one could ever collect one of every gnome ever made.

"There are just too many forms," he says.

Berrar describes gnoming is a secret pleasure. Every one of his gnomes has a story.

"It is a happy little ideal world, a nice counterpoint to everyday life," says Berrar, who keeps his gnomes dry at his home near Voelklingen, on the border with France.

It would be too cruel to expose them them to the rain, sun and cold. "Besides, they wouldn't fit style-wise in my garden."

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