Lives of the collectors: Norton Simon and Hans Berggruen. Culture clash

Similar in many ways, the subjects of these two biographies present contrasting styles of operation in the art market


Both these books provide ammunition for those who maintain that the principal purpose of works of art is to give the rich something to do with their money. Both present variations on the theme of art as commodity. The protagonists are both collector/dealers from modest Jewish business backgrounds, as keen on the thrill of the chase as the quarry itself. Both contributed to and benefited from the extraordinary growth and buoyancy of the art market following its stagnation in the immediate post-war years. Yet both in later life decided to share the pleasures they gained from their collections with a wider audience, keen to advance the cause of art’s spiritual content. In Norton Simon’s words, “By establishing a meaningful dialogue between an artist’s vision of the world and our own perceptions, art can help us to understand ourselves more fully.” In those of Heinz Berggruen, “paintings... want people to look at them and enjoy them, they want to inspire meditation and enhance our life experience.”

The journeys towards this common goal, undertaken for the most part on opposite sides of the Atlantic, are revealing not only about the different characters of the two men, but also about the different environments in which they operated.

Simon was born in 1907 in Portland, Oregon, moving with his family to San Francisco in 1921, after the death of his mother. Spurning a college education at Berkeley, he went into the business of food-processing in Los Angeles and by 1945 his company, Hunt Foods Inc., was among the West Coast market leaders (considered in charge of a vital industry, Simon was excused from war service). Expanding into timber, railroads and magazines, he had built up his personal wealth to $35 million by 1953, the year he was described by Fortune magazine as probably the most unpopular businessman in California.

His first purchases of art were made around this time, when he moved with his cultivated first wife Lucille into a new house in Hancock Park. The methods that had distinguished his business dealings—vision, aggression, ruthlessness, manipulation—were now unleashed on an art market still muffled in the aura of gentility. The trade’s clipped comments on this client from Hell, only tolerated for his buying power, add considerably to the humour of the text. Simon was, to quote Julian Agnew, on the far side of difficult. He got away with bullying and intimidation, endless haggling, ignoring commissions, making bizarre terms of sale, side deals and complex billing arrangements to maximize tax breaks, even exploiting the time zones to his own advantage. Most notoriously, in 1965 the prize of Rembrandt’s “Titus” was won through his managing to wrest control of the sale in progress by deliberately confusing the auctioneer with his bidding tactics. Ms Muchnic goes into the incident in detail and interestingly, it is not quite the shabby little triumph for Simon that it seemed: he could have bought the work a year earlier directly from the Cook collection for £500,000, as opposed to the 760,000 guineas he paid at Christie’s. Naturally Simon’s acquisitive instincts were most aroused in the face of competition, a lesson at least some dealers learnt to play to their own advantage.

The burgeoning world of West Coast museums was no less in his thrall, hoping to benefit from his largesse. But Simon as ever wanted a return on any investment. He was, according to Harold Williams, “a consummate brain picker”, telephoning directors, curators and connoisseurs at any time of day or night to elicit their opinion on the merits or otherwise of a particular work. The account given by Maurice Tuchman of his appointment to Los Angeles County Museum in 1964 suggests that Simon’s dealings with staff were little short of sadistic. In return for admittedly generous loans to the museum, he got free storage, insurance, shipping, cataloguing, photography and conservation as well as curatorial advice; he resigned from the board of trustees when the museum said it could no longer afford the arrangement.

He went on to torment other institutions, culminating in his take over of Pasadena Art Museum, renamed in 1975 the Norton Simon Museum. Under his auspices it was transformed, but not without legal battles against former trustees who objected to his de-accessioning practices. Nor did it stop him flirting with the University of California at Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, among others, over further display scenarios for his collection.

Having worked on the biography for seven years and with the cooperation of Simon’s widow, Jennifer Jones, Ms Muchnic confesses that she still does not know the man. One can only speculate on what, perforce, had to be left out for legal reasons or pietas, but she does a good job in presenting Simon as a tortured, driven monster for whom art offered some sort of solace.

Not surprisingly, Heinz Berggruen in his autobiography appears a pussycat by comparison, albeit one more than capable of revealing a velvet-clad claw. He was born in 1914 in Berlin where he spent a happy childhood and youth before leaving to study literature and art history in France. On his return to Berlin, a promising career in cultural journalism was curtailed by his prudent decision in 1936 to gain a scholarship to study at Berkeley (thirteen years after Simon dropped out).

But not even marriage into a wealthy, old-established California family nor a fling with Frida Kahlo could overcome his feelings of isolation and alienation from America’s extreme materialism. His call-up for military service in 1942 eventually got him back to Europe, where after the war he worked once again as a journalist on Heute, a Life-style magazine founded in Munich with the intention of re-educating the Germans.

Capitalising on his American citizenship, he also operated as a go-between for German collectors, who were prohibited from having contacts abroad, and Swiss art dealers. A job with UNESCO’s Art Department brought him to Paris where in 1947 he set himself up as a dealer on the proverbial shoe-string.

His first small gallery at the place Dauphine, Ile de la Cité, had a charmed existence. Ida Chagall lived opposite, while on the floor above were Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, who eventually bought him out—at a price—facilitating his move to the rue de l’Université in 1949. The following year Tristan Tzara, whom he met at the Café de Flore, introduced him to Picasso. Maeght and Kahnweiler were also helpful to their young and comparatively inexperienced colleague. Matisse turned out to be easy to deal with, Nina Kandinsky less so. Collectors came in all shapes and sizes; only Peggy Guggenheim proved to be completely impossible, the prominent lawyer, Ralph Colin, having to be hired to block her New York bank accounts in order to extract payment for a Léger.

In sharp contrast to Simon, Mr Berggruen seems interested in the people who made up his art world, its life and society, here encapsulated in a series of thumb-nail character sketches. As he says, “An art dealer... is always on the move: he travels, visits studios, participates in symposiums and auctions, and attends exhibitions. A genuine art dealer is an active participant in the artistic developments of his time.” The business, as he described it, was predominantly one of cultured European contacts, the mutual exchange of favours, a trade dependent on long-established patterns of trust and discretion. At the opposite extreme, Simon viewed the art business with distrust and contempt, there to be raided, frontier American fashion. A tension between the two styles of operation characterized the international art market from the 1960s until New World force majeure won, game, set and match, in the 1980s.

Mr Berggruen retired from an active involvement in art dealing in 1980 to devote himself to his own collection. Three years later, he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York his outstanding assemblage of works by Klee, a “magician” for whose art he felt a special affinity. But disillusioned by the fate of this gift which at the time of writing, had been banished to a bunker (recently, works were lent to Berlin), he proceeded more cautiously.

Little came of an overture to Geneva. A five-year loan of paintings to the National Gallery in London proved more fruitful, culminating in his sale to the Gallery in 1995 of Seurat’s “The Channel of Gravelines” for £16.3 million with seven Seurat oil studies thrown in as a douceur—a spectacular coup which strangely goes unmentioned in the book.

Having first picked up the scent at the National Gallery Berggruen opening (would ICOM’s Ethics Committee care to comment?), the general director of the Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Wolf-Dieter Dube, proceeded to stalk the collector assiduously with the intention of reuniting both him and his art with his home city of Berlin. The Berggruen Collection is now on display at the Stülerbau in Charlottenburg until 2006. Anyone who visits either it or the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has ample reason to be grateful to the vision of both men. But rather typically, in each case, the last deal is still to be done.

Suzanne Muchnic, Odd man in: Norton Simon and the pursuit of culture (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1998), 313 pp, 11 b/w ills, 29 col. ills, £25, $29.95 (hb) ISBN 0520206436