Fierce Competition for a fine ceramic sculpture of Lenin in Hungary

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An Auction for Budapest’s Bourgeoisie Puts Lenin on the Communist Block

BUDAPEST—Competition was fierce for Lot No. 38, a fine ceramic sculpture of Vladimir Lenin.

The winning bidder was 22-year-old Timea Szabo, who offered nearly $1,000 for the small likeness of the communist hero. Ms. Szabo, too young to remember Hungary’s socialist past, is firmly engaged with its capitalist present.

More than 20 years after the collapse of communism here, Hungary’s government is holding a vast rummage sale, auctioning off socialist-era paintings, sculptures and photographs that have been gathering dust in storage.

The proceeds will be used to help clean up after another reminder of central planning: an industrial accident that in October left villages in western Hungary flooded with caustic red sludge—waste from a once state-owned aluminum factory.

On Monday night, hundreds of people joined the bidding at an art gallery that formerly served as a warehouse for Hungary’s secret police.

Hungary’s current political leadership views the purge in part as a symbolic exorcism of the ghosts of socialism—and a reminder of past suffering.

„It’s an important gesture. Almost every Hungarian family was somehow a victim in the communist period,” says Gergely Boszormenyi Nagy, an official of the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, which organized the auction. „This is the end of the line. We won’t keep this stuff anymore.”

But the event also comes at a time of rising nostalgia for the socialist years —at least in some quarters of Hungarian society.

The country’s economy has been upended by the global financial crisis. Unemployment soared as the country sank into its worst recession since the transition to capitalism in 1989.

Many older people thrown out of work now say that at least under the communist regime everyone had a job and something to eat.

„When I was young, I didn’t really look deeply into the faults of the system,” says Mr. Torok, a real-estate entrepreneur who says that his business is struggling amid the economic downturn. „I lived a calm, secure life where bread cost 3.5 forints and everyone had a job.”

At Monday’s auction, the Wende Museum of Culver City, Calif., purchased 25 pieces that it termed „significant works” of communist-era Hungarian art.

Sales reached $63,000 on Monday, the first day of the auction. Wednesday’s session, which also included non-socialist pieces, raised roughly $96,000, organizers say. The auction concludes Thursday.

Peter Pinter, the owner of the gallery that is handling the auctions for the Hungarian government, believes that many of the items on the block are those that apparatchiks didn’t deem good enough to pilfer when the communist system fell apart.

Two decades after the collapse of communism, nostalgic Hungarians and collectors of communist kitsch are snapping up Soviet-era artwork at a government-run auction. WSJ’s Gordon Fairclough reports from Budapest.


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