Konrad O. Bernheimer, fourth-generation head of the renowned Bernheimer art gallery in Munich, watched discreetly last week as his family’s vast collection of art and other treasures went under the hammer.
The two-day auction at Sotheby’s in London was estimated to bring up to ₤7.8 million, or about $11.8 million.
Before bidding started, Mr. Bernheimer said he was “cool and relaxed.” But his heart must have skipped a few beats as he followed the first night on November 24 by video feed. The next day, after a fully packed house had bid on more than 400 lots, the actual take was only ₤3.7 million.
Still, Mr. Bernheimer said he felt a “great burden was lifted from his shoulders.”
“In the end, the price you get is what you get,” he said. “It is the market that determines how high objects go.”
It is a lesson the dealer has learned from almost a half-century of personal experience in art dealing — and from 150 years of ups and downs in the family business.
His great-grandfather, Lehmann Bernheimer, started the art collecting dynasty in 1864, selling textiles and furniture out of a Munich market stall. By the turn of the century, he had moved the business to the grand Palais Bernheimer, where he sold art to royal families, European aristocrats and American industrial magnates.
The gallery survived World War I, but not World War II. In 1939, Nazis dismantled the gallery and its great collections. The Bernheimers were first sent to Dachau and later exiled to North and South America.
After the war, the founder’s son, Otto Bernheimer, returned and painstakingly rebuilt the gallery and its collections.
His grandson Konrad later expanded the business with a special focus on Old Masters paintings by European artists from the 16th to 19th centuries. In 2002, the current head of Bernheimer Fine Old Masters gallery also acquired London’s famous Colnaghi gallery.
His daughters, meantime, branched out into photography and contemporary art.
“In the end, the price you get is what you get. It is the market that determines how high objects go. ”
Now Mr. Bernheimer, the 65-year-old Old Masters specialist, is retreating from the direct art trade. The Munich gallery will be given up, and the Colnaghi gallery will be sold to the Spanish art dealer, Coll Cortes.
The decision to sell was a clean and conscious break. “With this auction,” Mr. Bernheimer said, “I am also making a great monument for my family.”
Much of the family collection, which was housed most recently at the Marquartstein Castle in Chiemgau, Germany, was to be sold to the highest bidders at Sotheby’s. The dazzling display of objects included Old Master paintings, ancient sculpture, furniture, decorative arts, rugs, carpets and wine.
With the auction last week came the moment of truth — and some of the items set off exciting bidding wars. The second lot of the first evening, a Roman sarcophagus from the 3rd century, sold for ₤77,500, or about $116,500 — twice its estimated value.
On the next day, four chalkstone pillars sold for ₤137,000, after being valued at ₤60,000 to ₤80,000. It turned out to be the auction’s highlight.
A few dealers came and kept a lookout for good deals, but many items found no buyers despite moderate estimated values. Many were paintings that Mr. Bernheimer had bought for the Munich gallery in the last five or 10 years. Here, the tough law of art dealing applied: Nothing is harder to sell than an unsuccessful dealer’s goods.
The top lot, Nicolas Lancret’s Rococo painting “Le Menuet,” was exemplary of Mr. Bernheimer’s taste. In 2005 it sold for $744,000 at auction, but last week brought only ₤197,000, or about $296,000.
Other highlights flopped despite greatly reduced values, including a small copper plate by 17th century Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder, which was bought 15 years earlier for ₤1.1 million.
In the day auction, many good deals were offered. Nineteenth century German landscape artist Heinrich Dreber’s painting, “Schiller on a Walk,” was hammered for ₤188. It had cost €3,000.
Most of the lots had no lowest price. It was an admission, in part, that current tastes had diverged from the dealer’s. So the auction represented not only Mr. Bernheimer’s farewell, but also the shrinking market for older art in general.
It was in the early 1990s that Mr. Bernheimer began shifting the Munich gallery’s focus from antiquities to Old Masters paintings. His first big deal was his best. He paid ₤3 million for Bernardo Bellotto’s painting, “The Königstein Fortress,” and sold it later to the Washington National Gallery for more than twice that. It gave him courage to continue shifting to Old Masters, exactly as that market was beginning to decline.
Now even paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian or Raphael are being played on the side of the contemporary. And what cannot keep up with the leading Old Masters has only a niche market — and must move to auctions.
Mr. Bernheimer felt all of that bitterly in the past few years and is now dealing with the consequences. Not even his Colnaghi gallery, the oldest Old Masters dealer in the world, was completely safe. Mr. Bernheimer took over the London gallery from the Oetker Group, the German food-processing conglomerate, and it was closer to his heart than the art dealership in his own name. Even in recent years, it still showed profits.
Does he regret the move to old art now? Should he have bet instead on contemporary art, as his daughters did?
“I see nothing that I would do differently,” said Mr. Bernheimer. “I have had a wonderful time. My profession gave me a great joy and we also, thank God, were successful.”
Even as a child, he preferred the Old Masters paintings in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek to modern art museums. The paintings there were his passion, and the highs and lows of the art market only played a secondary role.
“It is like in the stock market,” he said. “Sometimes you catch it at the right time. Sometimes you buy in a downswing. But the main profit is that you enjoy the art daily. That is the interest.”
Matthias Thilbaut is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in the U.K., covering the art market. To contact him: email@example.com.