A Berlin homecoming: Interview with collector Heinz Berggruen on his collection's new home

After leaving Berlin in 1937, Berggruen will be placing his collection - which will go on show this autumn - on a ten-year loan with the Berlin State Museums



The Berggruen Collection of Impressionist and Modern art, which was, until recently on show at the National Gallery in London, will take up residence this September in the former museum of Antiquities in Berlin.

“Picasso and his time: the Berggruen Collection” will be a permanent display of around one hundred paintings, including works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Klee, Braque and Giacometti, which will be lent for at least ten years to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, the foundation which administers the Berlin State Museums.

The cost of the DM8.5 million remodelling of the nineteenth-century building by Stuehler is being covered by the city of Berlin. It has been redesigned by architects Milmer and Satller, who were responsible for the new Berlin Gemäldegalerie.

The Art Newspaper’s parent paper, Il Giornale dell’Arte, interviewed Mr Berggruen on the Berlin project, on his forthcoming memoirs and his thoughts on art and the art market.

What gave you the idea of taking the collection to Berlin?

Heinz Berggruen: At the opening of the collection in the National Gallery in 1991, I was invited to Berlin by Wolf-Dieter Dube, the director of the Stiftung Preussische Kulturbesitz, who mentioned a building directly opposite Schloss Charlottenburg as a possible home for my collection.

This was the beautiful Stuehler building, which had been used to house part of the collection of antiquities that has now been transferred to the Museen Insel. The idea that my collection could be hung in a building exclusively devoted to it, of exactly the right size—it could have been made to measure for a collection of about one hundred paintings—and in my native town as well, were deciding factors in the choice of Berlin.

Will the same items that were in London go to Berlin?

Yes, with a few changes. There will be sixty Picassos, twenty-five Klees (mainly watercolours and a few oils), some Braques and Giacomettis, five African sculptures and about twenty other works including paintings by Cézanne, Miró and Van Gogh. The exhibition will be entitled “Picasso und seine Zeit: die Sammlung Berggruen (Picasso and his time: the Berggruen Collection)”.

What will happen when the ten year loan period expires?

I don’t know. We will see with hindsight whether the choice of Berlin has been a happy one. No-one but I will decide about the paintings, these are the items that are closest to my heart. My experience with the Klees donated to the Metropolitan Museum has taught me never to make important decisions in a hurry. I’ve got four children, too, and I can’t possibly leave them out.

What exactly happened with the Metropolitan Museum?

I decided to give ninety works by Klee to the Museum in New York, probably the best collection of paintings by the artist in the world. I intended to create a corpus of work by Klee that would be unique in the US, where his art is not well-known. Maybe I was drunk when I decided to give all this away without making any safeguards or giving the museum any limits or conditions. I was certainly the victim of an excess of idealism; I’d been longing for a show called “Les Klees du Paradis” for ages. As it turned out, the paintings got almost lost in the great art fortress, the Metropolitan. Klee gets minimal exposure, and my impression is that the gift (and Klee’s paintings) have been considerably undervalued. My pleadings and my complaints to the press have had no effect.

You have been an art dealer since you were a young man. How did you manage to build up such a collection of masterpieces?

I am frequently asked that question and my reply is always the same: I have always been my own best customer. The collector’s instinct is something that you either have or you don’t, and it is impossible to explain it to someone who buys art for purely commercial reasons. I’ve often had the impression that clients who asked to buy a painting, to be told that it was not for sale, simply did not understand. Because I was a dealer they seemed keen to deny me my legitimate right not to sell works of art.

On the subject of memories, is it true that you are about to publish your autobiography?

Yes. It is coming out in time for the exhibition in September, published by the German publisher Nicolai. It is to be called “Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Major Road and Minor Roads)”, the name of a famous painting by Klee in the Ludwig Collection in Cologne. But I don’t want to give anything away.

What language is it written in?

In German, of course. Muttersprache ist Muttersprache, mother tongue is mother tongue for ever; it’s not like a woman from whom you can be separated one day.

What do you think of the plans of Thyssen and of Beyeler for the future of their collections?

They had other priorities. Thyssen has many heirs, Ernst Beyeler none. Thyssen was right to sell and I think the Spanish government paid a reasonable price. Beyeler, on the other hand, with no heirs, has succeeded in bequeathing to posterity a collection and a museum that will bear his name, and I understand that he has partly financed the construction of the Museum.

What do you think of the art market today? Do you think prices are still much too high?

I think that the market has recovered from the inflated speculation of the late Eighties. I should say that works of high quality still reach adequate prices, but that prices for lesser or low quality items have fallen dramatically. The market has shed its speculative sector.

Do you think London or New York will be the major centre of the art market in the future?

New York, without any doubt. There is a larger concentration of important collectors there and much more money than there is in London.

And who will win the competition for clients, the galleries or the auction houses?

Life is difficult for galleries because it seems to me that the more important pieces, the best quality, more and more frequently end up with the auctioneers. Auctioneers give the sellers the most efficient sales, with better prospects of achieving the highest possible prices.

Heinz Berggruen was born in Germany in 1914. On leaving school he studied medieval art in Toulouse and on his return to Berlin he worked as a correspondent for the distinguished newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung (now the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). In 1937 he left Germany for the United States, because of the threat of racial persecution and he proceeded to work as an assistant editor on the San Francisco Chronicle, then as an assistant to the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He has two children from his first marriage (John, now a well-known dealer of contemporary art in San Francisco, and Helen) and at this time he became an American citizen.

During World War II, he returned to Europe in the ranks of the American army, and decided to remain in Paris, where his first job was in the arts section of UNESCO. In 1947 he opened his first gallery in Place Dauphine, where he dealt in prints and rare books. The premises were so small that when he passed them on to his next-door neighbours, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, they used them as their kitchen.

In 1949, Berggruen opened the famous gallery at 70, rue de l’Université, where he dealt principally in contemporary graphic art, remaining there until 1980. He came into contact with a number of painters of the School of Paris through his links with the Surrealist poets Breton and Aragon and their circle. When he met Picasso in 1951 they began a friendship that was to continue until the death of the artist in 1973.

In the early days of his activity in Paris, Berggruen certainly owed much to his mentor, Daniel Kahnweiler, also a German Jew, whom he called affectionately “le comptable du cubisme”, (the accountant of Cubism) because of his extremely analytical approach to art. Kahnweiler advised him over his first important acquisitions.

The opening exhibition at the gallery in the rue de l’Université showed a series of drawings by Picasso, previously in the possession of Gertrude Stein, and it was visited by, among others, Nelson Rockefeller and Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1952, Berggruen organised the first exhibition of the drawings of Paul Klee to be held in Paris; Klee was, with Picasso, his favourite artist. He said later: “... I can’t stop buying Klee, it’s like a drug. The love affair began in San Francisco and has never left me”. The extraordinary activity of the gallery over the next three decades, from 1952 to 1979, produced no less than sixty-six catalogues, including several complete catalogue raisonnés.

Berggruen married his second wife, Bettina Moissi, in 1960 and the couple had two sons, Nicolas and Olivier, the latter now a gallery owner in London. From this date his collection began to concentrate on the work of a few artists—Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Braque and Picasso. From 1962 the collection was enriched by paintings of the calibre of Cézanne’s “Portrait of Madame Cézanne”, Cubist pictures and paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period. Picasso is the best-represented artist in the collection and Berggruen has sought to document the work of “the most creative and inventive” artist of the century in all its various aspects. His impressive collection of works by Klee also began to take shape in the Sixties, eventually comprising more than one hundred works, watercolours and oils, thirteen of which are now in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris (in addition ninety were donated to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1984). It was not until 1973 , however, that he acquired the “jewel of the collection”, Seurat’s “Poseuses”.

Since 1980 when he ceased to play an active part in his gallery, Heinz Berggruen has taken a keen interest in the careers of his two gallery-owning sons, John and Olivier, as well as devoting himself to his own collection, trying to discover a way of displaying it to the largest number of people possible. After a brief spell at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva in 1988, the collection was on show at the National Gallery, London, for five years from 1990. As a mark of gratitude, Berggruen donated nine Seurats to the Gallery, which then purchased the “Poseuses” for £16 million. What remains of the collection after the gift of the Klees to the Metropolitan Museum and the Seurats to the National Gallery in 1995 goes to Berlin this autumn.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Heinz Berggruen: a Berlin homecoming'