Magic Lanterns and Lancias

Christian Hrabalek was born with a gold spoon in his mouth in Vienna. An adorable good looking boy of about 4 or 5 in the early 80s. Magical Martin and I had been invited to spend Christmas, my birthday and New Year in Vienna in Ernst Hrabalek's home with his family.

I had moved back to London from Paris where, in 1978, I met the man, I would would eventually marry in 1983, at the annual Ron McMillian's day of Magic. I would meet Martin Breese again at the same convention in 1980. Same day, same time, 2 years later only by then he was divorced.

I was a specialist dealer in pre-cinema and in particular French Lapierre and Aubert tin coloured magic lanterns some of which were figural and highly desirable by the few collectors worldwide who could afford the high prices.  Ernst was one of the passionate wealthy collectors who lived in Vienna. I think I met him as a member of the Magic Lantern Society in London but don't really recall. His English was not too bad but not good enough to carry out business deals for his company Becker Technik.

Ernst was a user.  He adored my husband who could speak some German and wasted Martin's time, engaging him to organise a stand at the NEC in Birmingham for his iron foundry in Vienna. He even  forgot to bring the sales brochures!

Ernst had used his successful company to finance his acclaimed book on magic lanterns, illustrated with excellent coloured photographs of objects from his top quality collection such as the Eiffel Tower and the Buddha.

Ernest was a self educated slight pasty faced individual who wore spectacles. I think he was originally a mechanical engineer who worked with cars or planes but it's too long ago to recall the details. In the end he worked for an leading Viennese iron foundry and became more or less the adopted son of the owner.  When the old man died, Ernst inherited the foundry and discovered, lucky man, all the antique original moulds for the famous Vienna bronzes; cold painted animal objects, in the basement. We were invited to the foundry and I actually saw a pile of moulds as he had not begun to create the new collection and market them.  I even bought and sold these charming animal objets du virtue with 'gerschutz'  stamped underneath, usually on the belly of the animal, to show it was an original. He set to work to reissue them especially the charming cold painted hand painted miniature bronze cats in a limited edition.

His first major contract was miles of metal fencing somewhere in the Emirates so he was doing very well by the time we befriended him. Always talking about his wonderful son, never a word about his wife and when we arrived at Christmas, we discovered he even had a little girl!

After the disastrous attempt to launch a company in London with Martin on board, Martin gave him the sage green suite he got married in for some reason and I even think Ernst slept on our sofa one night in the lounge when he could afford a hotel!

I recall he asked Martin to bid for an important magic lantern at a Christies photographic auction because he was not confident enough in English. He promised Martin he could bid on anything he wanted in the auction as a 'commission'. Martin, having been a professional freelance photographer,  with his own studio for 10 years in the late 60s, wanted a sepia original framed photograph of a romantic woman by Julia Margaret Cameron. But when the hammer went down, Ernst tried to wiggle out of paying! Martin got his prize in the end but never trusted Ernst after that.

To make up for his insincerity, we were invited to Vienna for Christmas, my birthday and New Year. I had a good friend Christine Anderle, an ex English language student of mine, in Vienna who in turn knew a conjurer Martin had met called Sacha so we were able to make a foursome and go out for dinner on my birthday.

Afternoon tea and pastries was another 'Must' at Demels, founded in 1786, with its famous Sacher torte and 'cafe mit schlag' served in a fancy glass mug, sipping the black coffee through the sweet whipped schlag ontop. Orgasmic! I was to meet years later the Jewish owner Andrew Demel in Portobello Road market searching for tea tins and caddies and recall him telling me there was still a lot of antisemitism in Vienna. He, too, had published in the late 80s a heavy expensive coffee table book on the history of tea with excellent colour photographs from his private collection.

We arrived in time for the traditional Christmas dinner of baked carp on Christmas Eve, the 24th December. His wife was ordinary but hospitable. Christian was given an expensive toy car, his daughter got a French bisque head doll, and his wife, who was curled up on the floor, a smallish medium size leather suitcase. We all gasped at what was revealed. Money! Hundreds of 'undeclared' notes in dollars. She threw all the notes up in the air laughing and they fluttered down all over her slender body and the rug she was sitting on. What a photo; if only I had had my camera but the moment is frozen in time on the screen of my mind forever.

Early on Sunday morning we went in the freezing weather to the flea market. He was of course hunting for additions to his large collection housed behind a hidden iron door in his office and displayed in lit showcases in a vault and I was looking for a huge profit! I recall I wore boots that got damp with the deep snow. My toes froze. It was so cold that Ernst offered me a hot gluhwein at the market. God it was good! I could feel it coursing through my body and warming me up instantly.

Ernst gave us a spare normally rented-out luxury flat in the Embassy district. I remember gold plate taps in the form of swans and underfloor heating but no food in the fridge for his hungry guests! I recall New Year's Day was so cold and with snow so deep, that we stayed under the duvet all day. We ventured out with Christine and Sacha to see a magic show at night and amazingly the taxi arrived instantly by the time each time we got down the stairs to the front door.

Ernst fell in love with Thailand and bought land in Phuket. From time to time he would pass through London with a pretty young Thai dolly bird on his arm and ask, using our phone, if we could call his unsuspecting wife to say 'hello' and then shove the phone in my hand to say 'hello' to prove he had been in our home in Notting Hill. I noticed the dolly did not have to say 'hello!'  It would be a different dolly each time, half his age who would smile and giggle.

I moved on to open my archive/photo library Retrograph by which time Ernst had just about completed his collection. 30 years passed. I knew that he no longer was collecting magic lanterns but had exchanged his passion for a more lucrative one. Lancias Stratos luxury sports cars!

I thought I would look him up on Google. Still alive and described as a tycoon, I was horrified to see that he had fallen out with his beloved son, Christian, over the loan of his 4 Lancia Stratos sports cars for an exhibition which his son proclaimed he had been gifted. Ernst took his son to Court in London in 2015 and his Christian countersued in 2016 but lost the case.

So Lancias, the material things in life, are more important than love in a tycoon's materialistic life. Both Christina and Sacha have died, my husband too, so I have no reason to go back to beautiful Vienna unless I want to taste the best apple strudel in the world at Demel's! .

Written in the Meson de la Villa restaurant, Salobrena, Spain on 17/2/17.


Wikipedia - magic lanterns
Prater Museum, Vienna - part of Ernst Hrabelek Magic Lantern collection
Sacher torte - Hotel Sacher
Google - Ernst Hrabelek
Magic Lantern Society UK
Vienna bronze Animalia - Google