Impressionist & Modern Art

Two Expressionist Masterworks Restituted to the Heirs of Collector, Dealer and Bon Vivant Alfred Flechtheim

By Sotheby's

A lfred Flechtheim was a collector, art dealer, publisher, patron and bon vivant. His ancestors had been grain merchants in Westphalia and had moved to Duisburg and Dusseldorf after the Franco-Prussian war. With its motto “Tue Recht, und scheue Niemand!” (Be just and shun nobody!) the Flechtheim family and its business connections were internationally known. Alfred was born in 1878 in Munster. His father Emil Flechtheim brought him in to the family business at age twenty-four in 1902 after his uncle’s early demise. The grain business did not suit the young Alfred.

Despite his efforts, he could not match the results achieved during his father’s and grandfather’s era before the turn of the twentieth century. Starting in 1906, turnover declined sharply and by 1913, the company faced ruin. Alfred commented on this in his diary: “I have sacrificed the best years of my life to my parents; I no longer have any energy. Now I find myself right in the middle of this mire… finished the preliminary balance sheet for the mills yesterday evening. Horrendous. I could see bankruptcy and dishonor quite clearly. Better dead than dishonorable.” The Flechtheim grain company was rescued with emergency financing from a consortium of bankers and Alfred Flechtheim took this opportunity to leave the wheat market becoming a full-time art dealer.

Alfred Flechtheim in 1911. Image Courtesy of Thea Sternheim.

Like many of the world’s greatest dealers, Flechtheim began his art career as a collector. While learning about the commodities trade in Paris in 1906 he fell in with the colony of German artists who frequented the Café du Dôme in Montparnasse. The following year, 1907, he came back to Paris and met the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the artist Pablo Picasso. With income from his family business the young Flechtheim rapidly built up an exceptional collection of Cubist paintings including a large number of works by Picasso.

On his return to Dusseldorf in 1909, Flechtheim became closely involved in the local art scene. He was appointed treasurer of the Sonderbund association of artists and was lender many contemporary art exhibitions. By this time Alfred Flechtheim was widely rumored to be gay and it is perhaps for this reason that in 1910 his parents encouraged his marriage to Betty Goldschmidt, the heiress of a wealthy Dortmund merchant. The newlyweds took their honeymoon in Paris, where, according to rumor, Alfred invested Betty’s dowry in Cubist art, to the alarm of his in-laws. To his horrified father-in-law Alfred wrote of the works by Picasso, Braque and Derain he had just purchased “don’t worry, they’ll double in value.”

Art makes me crazy. A passion stronger than gambling, alcohol and women. I’m possessed by Art. I gamble for the sake of Art, I’m drunk by Art. Art is everything to me, I am nothing compared to Art.”
Alfred Flechtheim

In 1913 Flechtheim opened his eponymous “Gallery for Older and Modern Art” in Dusseldorf with the support of the legendary Berlin dealer Paul Cassirer. The elegant catalogue for his opening show listed works by many of the artists whom Alfred would continue to promote throughout his career including Braque, Cézanne, van Gogh, Kokoschka, Matisse, Picasso and Schiele. The catalogue opens with the young dealer’s ebullient statement: “At last I am in a position to fulfill my long-cherished wish to involve myself more with all things to do with art. My gallery will help me achieve this.”

Oskar Kokoschka, Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac, 1910. Estimate $15,000,000–20,000,000.

During World War I Flechtheim volunteered for the Westphalian Uhlan Regiment, and was promoted to lieutenant. At thirty-six he was considered too old for the front and served in the military administration based in Belgium. Due to the war, Alfred was forced to auction both his collection and his business stock in 1917 through Paul Cassirer and Hugo Helbing. The auction of his stock on June 5, 1917 in Berlin included some 250 works of art. It was the first auction of contemporary art in Germany and the only display of French Modernism during the war.

In 1919 Flechtheim reopened his gallery – this time on the Königsallee in Dusseldorf – a location he compared to the rue de la Boétie in Paris or Bond Street in London. He complemented his portfolio with artists from France and Germany and established branches and representative offices in Berlin (1921), Frankfurt (1921), Cologne (1922) and Vienna (1922 with Lea Bondi Jaray) and engaged Gustav Kahnweiler, Alex Vömel and later Curt Valentin as members of staff . In 1921 Flechtheim moved his center of operations to Berlin due to the city’s importance as a center of the arts, trusting Alex Vömel to run the gallery in Dusseldorf (in 1933 Vömel would join the SA (“brown shirts”), and the Nazi party).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Das Soldatenbad (Artillerymen), 1915. Estimate $15,000,000–20,000,000.

Alfred Flechtheim’s gallery parties were legendary. They were attended by sportsmen, artists, collectors, the literati, publishers, bankers and socialites. Charlotte (Lotte) von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a legendary art collector and the wife of banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, made sandwiches for the parties, and the liquor was donated by Alfred’s clients in the distilling business. Flechtheim himself was not averse to dressing up at his parties and went to great lengths to cultivate an outrageous image. Thea Sternheim, the wife of successful playwright Carl Sternheim, made friends with Flechtheim early on. “How thrilling it is to meet a Jew,” she said, “who doesn’t hide his heritage but is actually proud of it, and who says things like: ‘Don’t you think that King David was more feudal than some fly-by-night Hohenzollern?’.”

Alfred Flechtheim in Galerie Simon, Paris, 1926 with Maurice de Vlaminck, Louise Leiris, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Juan Gris and Otto von Waetjen.

Concurrently with his move to Berlin, Alfred Flechtheim founded one of the most important illustrated magazines of the 1920s and 1930s: Der Querschnitt (literally “The Cross Section”). The magazine started as a publicity vehicle for the gallery but under the editorship of Hermann von Wedderkop grew into a massively inventive and influential journal; a journal that focused equally on literary criticism and sport, on illustrations of the latest art from Paris and of naked athletes. Flechtheim commissioned Marsden Hartley to write dispatches from his own favorite Parisian haunt the Café du Dôme and through its pages introduced German audiences to Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.

The list of contributors to the special edition of “Der Querschnitt,” published on the occasion of Flechtheim’s 50th birthday in 1928, includes Ernest Hemingway, André Gide, Jean Cocteau and Max Schmeling, and is a permanent testimony to the varied and influential circle of people who had gathered around Flechtheim during this time.

Art needs nothing less than being national and provincial, as genuinely good art transcends racial barriers and belongs to the whole world.
Alfred Flechtheim

Many of the artists whom Flechtheim represented were unknown when they signed with him. “I have a number of contracts with artists. Some I guarantee a minimum income and have a larger share in their paintings, watercolors and graphic works; others are not given a guaranteed sum and I only take a small commission,” was how Flechtheim explained his arrangements with artists and representatives. He built his artists’ careers by placing their works with museums and institutions, by making price concessions for important collectors, donating works to museums, exchanging pictures, sending works out on approval and working together with art societies, museums and their associations of friends. With these aims in mind Flechtheim, now a major force in the art world, organized 150 exhibitions in fifteen years. He also collaborated closely with dealers in London, Paris and New York and took works on commission from them on a regular basis.

Poster for the exhibition Entartete Kunst, Hamburg, 1938 with a caricature of Flechtheim in the background, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe.

But Flechtheim’s success in Germany would not last. The Frankfurt and Cologne branches of the gallery closed in 1925. After the crash on the New York stock exchange in October 1929, Alfred Flechtheim’s business, like almost any other art dealer’s business at the time, took a hit. Sales declined and the art market had tightened.

The Nazis came to power at the beginning of 1933 and destroyed Alfred’s life and business almost overnight. His Jewish faith, his flamboyant reputation and his ardent support of the avant-garde exposed him to unparalleled persecution. Flechtheim was refused membership of the “Reichskammer der bildenden Knste” that became compulsory from September 1933 onward, and in effect this amounted to a ban on his ability to work as an art dealer. For the Nazis Flechtheim was the personification of the Jewish ‘Untermensch’ and was called and enemy ‘Aryan’ race and the Nazi state. He wrote to his niece Thea Löwenstein: “What is to come of me, only God knows. I have to get away from here. Whether in Florence or (elsewhere). Whether I can earn anything. I don’t know. I can’t run a business any more here in Germany.” In October 1933 his decision to emigrate became final. “Yesterday I left Berlin forever. My galleries there and in Dusseldorf are to be closed. There is no place for me here.”

Otto Dix, Der Kunsthändler Alfred Flechtheim, oil on canvas, 1926, Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Alfred Flechtheim’s hope was to relocate to Paris or New York with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler or Paul Rosenberg but in December 1933 he moved to London and worked with the Mayor Gallery. From 1934 he represented Kahnweiler’s Galerie Simon in London and desperately went back and forth to Paris to make a living. In London he organized exhibitions of works by Picasso, Gris, Léger and Marie Laurencin and up until 1936 he managed to enter and leave Nazi Germany on several occasions at great personal risk to see his wife Betty who has stayed in Berlin because she was unable to pay Jewish ‘flight tax.’

The details of Flechtheim’s death are unclear but it is thought that he slipped on a patch of ice in London and reopened an injury he had sustained in a fall from a horse during the First World War. His condition was aggravated by diabetes and he was admitted to a nursing home to regain his strength. It is said that he was then injured by a rusty nail in his bed, and at any event he developed blood poisoning and died, with Betty at his side, on March 9, 1937, at St. Pancras Hospital. His ashes were interred in Golders Green cemetery in London on March 11 and Lord Ivor Churchill gave the eulogy at his funeral. His wife Betty returned to Berlin to look after elderly relatives who could not escape Germany and in 1941, when she was ordered to report for deportation to the Minsk ghetto, she ingested a lethal dose of veronal.

Even after his death Alfred Flechtheim was a magnet for Nazi hate. From 1937 the Propaganda Ministry organized a touring exhibition of so called “degenerate art” – art by titans of the twentieth century that had been deaccessioned from Federal Museums for failing to adhere to Nazi aesthetics. The posters and catalogues for these exhibits used Alfred’s distinctive features as visual shorthand for all that the Nazis criticized in high culture in Weimar Germany.

In a manuscript that Alfred Flechtheim was working on when he died he summed up his views on art: “Art needs nothing less than being national and provincial, as genuinely good art transcends racial barriers and belongs to the whole world.”

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's