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History of the Collection

The Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett is one of the oldest museums of its kind in Europe and also one of the most important. The collection holds the only known drawing by the famous artist Jan van Eyck, an extraordinarily fine silverpoint drawing which is a portrait of Cardinal Nicolò Albegati. With an expression of concentration he sits in front of the artist, who is making notes on the margins of the drawing. It must date from about 1435. As early as the 16th century, the Saxon rulers had already started collecting art on paper and had established a “centre for pictorial documentation” reflecting the princes’ scholarly activities and conceptions about the world. It was only later that aesthetic criteria came to predominate. The collection grew significantly after August the Strong established it as a separate museum in 1720. He founded what might be described as a ‘universal museum’ in the Zwinger, where he accommodated the natural history collections, the library and the Kupferstich-Kabinett.

Over the centuries, and also during GDR times, the holdings were constantly expanded and the collection’s international character preserved. The losses suffered during the National Socialist period were a serious blow to the museum’s collecting aspirations, however. A total of 381 works, mainly by Expressionist artists, fell victim to the campaign against so-called “degenerate art” and funds for purchasing new works were refused. Thanks to the fact that the Cabinet’s holdings had been evacuated to Weesenstein Castle in 1940, most of the collection was spared the firestorm of 13 February 1945. About 90 per cent of the sheets were transported to the Soviet Union by the Red Army Trophy Commission, and nearly all were returned in 1958. Nevertheless, there are still around 50,000 sheets, including about 5,000 drawings, that have been counted as war losses since 1945. Today the Kupferstich-Kabinett has state-of-the-art storerooms, its own exhibition rooms and a study hall in the Residenzschloss, so that it is in an excellent position for facing the future.