Habsburg heritage

Dorotheum’s history, which dates back more than 300 years, is closely linked to the Habsburg empire. Three emperors in particular have played decisive roles in the creation of today’s auction house.

By Michaela Strebl-Pühringer

Josef I. and the Dorotheerstift, circa 1730
Josef I. and the Dorotheerstift, circa 1730

The founder

Dorotheum’s founder, Emperor Joseph I, was a highly intelligent and multi-talented young man: he mastered seven languages to perfection, was a trained architect and, like his father, Leopold I, an eager musician. His contemporaries described him as utmost attractive, adventurous, audacious, and gutsy. He was crowned King of Hungary at the age of nine, and 18 years later, in 1705, when his father died, he ascended the imperial throne to become Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. With Prince Eugene of Savoy at his side, he fought with some success the Spanish War of Succession, a triumph that earned him the nickname “the Victorious”. As baroque ruler and new Roi Soleil (Sun King), Joseph undertook the construction of a new castle, Schönbrunn, with the ambition to outshine Versailles. Politically, he implemented several important reforms: he took steps to abolish forced manual labour as payment for property leases, the so-called Frondienst , slimmed down the administration, and reformed the tax system. He also rebuilt Josefstadt, the Vienna city quarter that had been demolished during the Turkish siege. He built the Kärtnertor Theatre, commissioned the casting of the Pummerin, the famous Saint Stephen’s Cathedral bell, and founded the Dorotheum in 1707. It was initially known merely as an imperial pawn office, but the founding charter foresaw a wider role as both auction house and pawn office with a social mandate to fulfil, much in the spirit of the Italian “mons pius”, but also as an exchange for property, moveable goods, and labour services. Four years after the founding of Dorotheum, a smallpox epidemic swept across Europe and claimed Emperor Joseph I as its most prominent victim. He died after a few days of illness in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, at the age of 33.

Founding patent of the Versatz-, Versteigerungs- und Verwahrungs-Amt
Founding patent of the “Versatz-, Versteigerungs- und Verwahrungs-Amt”

The christener

Joseph II, eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa, was a strong proponent of enlightened absolutism. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1765, but didn’t assume control of the Habsburg Empire until after his mother’s death in 1780. During his short ten-year reign, he implemented a number of swift and significant reforms. He standardized the administration, dismantled class privileges, and carried out a reform of the judicial system and marked improvements in the healthcare and welfare systems; in addition, he introduced a religious tolerance bill that prohibited discrimination of religious minorities. So from a modern perspective, Joseph II did indeed introduce groundbreaking reforms. Yet many of his contemporaries considered them to be much too radical.

Joseph II. (1741–1790) painted by Josef Hickl (1800s)
Joseph II. (1741–1790) painted by Josef Hickl (1800s)

A self-confessed emperor of the people, Joseph II would every now and then dress down and leave his palace to move unrecognized among the ”subjects”. Legend has it that he once inspected Dorotheum disguised as a common citizen. Whether this is true or not, he did unquestionably show a keen personal interest in the matters of the house. Initially, it had been accessible only to the privileged classes, but Joseph II opened it to the general public and introduced a formal set of rules for the auction business. When the time came to find a new location, Joseph II ignored the proposals of administration officials and opted instead for a noble location in close proximity to the Hofburg Palace. In 1787, the emperor signed over the premises of the dissolved Augustinian monastery and its Church of Saint Dorothy. It was Saint Dorothy, or Dorothea, who eventually gave the name to the auction house: Dorotheum.

The builder

Emperor Franz Joseph I was the longest-serving regent in the history of the Habsburg dynasty. He led the Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than 60 years (1848 to 1916): from revolution in Austria, in the early years, to the start of World War I, which would eventually mark the demise of the dynasty. During these six decades, the so-called Ringstrasse Era, the face of Vienna underwent a major transformation. The old city wall was torn down and the glacis removed to make way for a broad avenue that encircled the city centre. A number of magnificent buildings in historistic architectural styles were erected along the avenue whose decorative qualities and volumes made them key features of the city’s visual identity.

The "Versatz-, Versteigerungs- und Verwahrungs-Amt." Lithograph from 1901 by Franz Freiherr von Krauß
The “Versatz-, Versteigerungs- und Verwahrungs-Amt.” Lithograph from 1901 by Franz Freiherr von Krauß

The premises of Dorotheum were also subject to a complete refurbishment. The old monastery walls were torn down and on the Emperor’s orders Erich Graf Kielmansegg, governor of Lower Austria and state secretary, initiated the construction of an internationally inspired palais, an auction palace, on the site. Emil Ritter von Förster, the architect chosen for the project, eventually created a monumental building in classic baroque tradition. The new palais contained a stately entrance hall, a total of 13 auction rooms, reception and exhibition halls, and an impressive ceremonial hall with a gallery and the imperial insignia, the Franz Josef Hall.

Even at the time, the interior design and the optimally temperature-controlled storage rooms met modern-day standards. On 12 November 1901 the emperor himself officially opened the new Palais Dorotheum, in the presence of the bulk of Austria’s aristocracy.

Auctions then
Auctions then …
... and auctions now
… and auctions now


The heritage of Hapsburg

To this day, the palais still treats visitors and customers to its international auctions, an unparalleled ambiance of imperial tradition, history, and exclusivity. The world’s oldest auction house might quite possibly also be the most beautiful.


Michaela Strebl-Pühringer is Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Dorotheum. She holds degrees in art history and German literature and is a certified marketing consultant. 

(myART MAGAZINE Nr. 01/2013)

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