ART DEPRECIATION

An Old Master's Swan Song

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  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Konrad Bernheimer went all in with Old Masters paintings at the start of the 1990s — about the same time art buyers were moving to contemporary art.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Lehmann Bernheimer started the family art dealing and collecting dynasty in 1864.
    • In 1889 the business moved to the grand Palais Bernheimer.
    • The founder’s son, Otto Bernheimer, rebuilt the business after it was destroyed by the Nazis.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

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.

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