Collector profile: Heinz Berggruen reflects on his collection as his masterpieces go on loan to the National Gallery

“Not all art dealers make good collectors, and it’s no use them trying to be something they are not”.


“Not all art dealers make good collectors, and it’s no use them trying to be something they are not”. The person speaking has forty years’ experience of running an art gallery and thirty years as a collector: Heinz Berggruen. His masterpieces are going on loan to the National Gallery in London this month, to the envy of museums and galleries not just in the British Isles.

As if to give a practical demonstration of his statement, the seventy-six year old Berggruen has now retired from business to enjoy and, with the “unerring” eye acknowledged by Giacometti’s biographer, James Lord, add to his collection. The most famous work in it is a version (twenty-five times smaller than the original) of the celebrated “Poseuses” in the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia by Seurat, an artist rarely handled by his gallery. The stuff of legend, this work has also conferred a kind of immortality on its owners; that, at least, is the opinion of the conceptual artist Hans Haake, who in 1975 created a montage of pictures and photographs of the private collectors who had had the good fortune to enjoy the painting since it first emerged from Seurat’s workshop in 1888. Berggruen had experienced a strong urge to own the painting, and in 1971 bought it from Artemis, a consortium of dealers formed in 1970 by the Belgian banker Léon Lambert, which had acquired the work at a Christie’s sale in London in the June of the same year. Such was Berggruen’s love of the work that he traded two cubist works by his beloved Picasso and a van Gogh drawing to possess it. “Today, I cannot think of the prices fetched by Picasso’s cubist paintings without a shiver. But, what do I care: “Les Poseuses” is the jewel of my collection”.

Son of a middle-class Berlin family, Heinz Berggruen went to the States in the 1930s, after taking a degree in medieval art history in France, and took American citizenship. On arrival in the bay area, the young Berggruen first made his living as art critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, and even found time to get married. But when he left San Francisco, it was for good, despite his wife and two sons, one of whom, John, has followed in the footsteps of his father to become an art dealer. Heinz returned to Germany with Air Force Intelligence, commissioned to “re-educate” the defeated nation. Maybe he had already caught the collecting “bug”, without even realising it: during his honeymoon, possibly applying experience he had gained as assistant to Grace McCann Morley, Director of what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he bought a water-colour by Klee. It was to influence his future career in more ways than one. In New York he committed a blunder – some say the only blunder of his career – when he bought a painting by Bombois; but he also snapped up a Picasso etching.

Whether he was influenced by the hereditary bond with his grandfather, the critic Oskar Berggruen, editor from 1897 to 1939 of Die Graphischen Künste, a review famous for having published the original engravings of Klinger and Kollwitz; or whether he was born with an innate passion, once in Germany Berggruen began to collect rare books and engravings, to appreciate the works of Klee at a deeper level, and to acquire works by members of the Dada movement. At the end of the war, he was quite happy to accept a transfer to Paris, to the Fine Arts Department of Unesco. He remembers that time as “an infernal bore”, and soon abandoned his secure salary for the uncertain life of an art dealer in the difficult conditions of post-war Paris.

The scene was anything but encouraging: four major galleries (Maeght had not yet opened); very few visitors; and many problems in international communications. But it was a time of expansion and there was a gap to be filled. Many of the artists who interested Berggruen were beginning to become internationally famous. His first major business deal was the sale of a folder of engravings by Toulouse Lautrec, the Elles album, which he bought for Ffr 6,000 and resold six months later for double the figure to Ludwig Charell, one of the best-known collectors of the artist’s works. “I liked that album, but at that time how could I have turned down that sort of offer?” That was one of his many “business deals born of love”, as The Financial Times headlined an article on Berggruen. He only ever dealt in artists about whom he felt strongly.

The people of real influence in Paris in those years were the poets: Eluard, Breton, Aragon, Tzara. With an entrée into all the salons and cultural spheres of the city, they were excellent intermediaries for the artists, who entrusted them with the sale of their works. It was thanks to Tzara, who asked Berggruen to exhibit his volume De Mémoire d’homme, illustrated with lithographs by the artist, that Berggruen got to know Picasso, a nucleus of whose works is now one of the focal points of the collection. Berggruen’s gallery dealt mainly in drawings: the Cubists Picasso and Braque; Léger, but also Miró, Matisse, Kandinsky and Klee. From 1952, the gallery also became famous for its much sought-after “plaquettes”, small catalogues often bearing on their cover original lithographs by the artists on show, and texts by Tériade, Arp, Kahnweiler, Reverdy, Douglas Cooper, Severini, Tzara, Breton, Prévert, Queneau and Chastel. At the same time, Berggruen continued collecting on his own account. In 1962, he acquired his first Cézanne; in the 60s and 70s, he augmented his store of Picassos, which now includes two still lifes in cubist mode, “Nature morte au piano” (1911-12) and “Ma Jolie”; a pastel from his blue period; and, not least, a watercolour drawing, “Le Dormeur”, sold to him by Paul Eluard in 1952. He paid the enormous, for that time, sum of Ffr 5,000 for the work, but to overcome Berggruen’s hesitations the famous poet threw in a watercolour by Klee.

Berggruen retired from business in 1980, handing the gallery over to his assistant Antonio Mendiharat, and now spends much of each year in New York. Now that he can concentrate on collecting, in recent years he has pulled off some sensational coups, acquiring eight Picassos, nine works by Matisse, six by Cézanne, nine by Seurat, two by Braque and two by Giacometti. He has also strengthened his collection of works by Klee, possibly his first love. He gave eighty-four of these to New York’s Metropolitan Museum: “I did not want my collection of Klees to be dispersed. But hardly had I handed them over to the Museum than I went and bought another six of his works. For me collecting Klees is an unbreakable habit”.

Berggruen has built up one of the most prestigious collections in the world, albeit restricting himself to just a few artists: Seurat, Cézanne, Picasso, Klee (he likes to compare the two last named with a musical metaphor: “Picasso is a symphony; Klee chamber music”), Matisse and Giacometti. He does not decry collecting for investment purposes, since the phenomenon provides a stimulus to the market, but he does brand as hypocrites those dealers who deplore the major role now played by auction houses. He has rarely ventured into the market in contemporary works; when he had an opportunity to sell works by Poliakoff, although the artist was very highly rated, he preferred to back out: “He was not really honest with me”. Berggruen has always collected the classics of modern art, but he admits: “I know some magnificent drawings of Venice by Guardi. If I could have my time again, I think I would collect Old Masters”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Heinz Berggruen'