14 May 2016

One very fine (art) family: the Bernheimers of Bavaria.

Lehmann Bernheimer (1841-1918) was born in Württemberg into a fine Jewish family. In 1864, Lehmann founded a business for high-quality textiles in Munich’s old town and expanded his business into luxury goods for home interiors. From 1882 he started providing art objects to the Bavarian royal family.

In 1887, Bernheimer bought a small coffee house and beer garden in Lenbachplatz in Munich’s Altstadt. In its place he built the Bernheimer-Haus, a special residential and commercial building designed by architect Friedrich von Thiersch with a classy neo-baroque façade. Bernheimer was proud to be close to the city’s main synagogue, designed and built in the spectacular Neo-Romanesque style just a couple of years earlier (1884-7).

Bernheimer-Haus was opened in Dec 1889 by Prince Regent Luitpold, son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and uncle of King Ludwig II who had been declared mentally incompetent.

After a 1897 fire, the building was renovated and antiques, tap­es­tries and carpets were added. But Bernheimer was not just motivated by the arts. To show his dedication to the community, he founded a secondary school for Jews and Christians in the city of his birth, Buttenhausen. The school, named Bernheimersche Realschule, opened in 1903.

Business was flourishing in the decade before WW1 and Bernheimer-Haus was one of the most important arts centres in Germany. So Lehmann bought two houses which were added to the Lenbachplatz complex. The architects created an Italianate baroque mansion for the presentation of the art objects, 10 bays wide and six storeys high.

in Munich’s Altstadt
as it appears today

The Bernheimer facility was a phenomenon. Lehmann Bernheimer supplied textiles, and later antiques, to King Ludwig of Bavaria’s palaces. Lehmann’s three sons (Max, Ernst and Otto) added carpets, sculpture, renaissance chests and architectural antiques, buying up in the Middle and Far East, Italy and Spain. The palace's heart and soul was the Gobelin Hall, filled with Italian renaissance furniture, tapestries and woodwork.

And because Bernheimer’s collectibles appealed to a wide range of cultivated European and American families, a very large number of cultivated German dealers/salespeople became permanent staff. Among the important clients was William Randolph Hearst, who bought a LOT.

On Lehmann’s death in 1918, son Otto Bernheimer (1877–1960) became the senior partner in the family business. The arts were doing well in Germany until Kristallnacht in Nov 1938, when Bernheimer-Haus was destroyed by Nazi thugs and the family was sent to Dachau concentration camp. Being suppliers of art works to the Bavarian royal family clearly was not going to save this entire Jewish family.

Through the greatest miracle, the family was saved when the Mexican government proved that Otto Bernheimer was their honorary consul in Munich. The condition of their release was that Otto and his sons would be exiled from Germany, to Venezuela! Once they were safely in South America, the men learned of the Aryanisation of their beloved company and the confiscation of their beloved 19th century German and French arts.

I cannot find anything about the third generation of Kurt Bernheimer (1911–1954) because the company faded in Germany after Kristallnacht, the very time when Kurt was still in Venezuela.

The fourth generation started when Konrad Bernheimer (1950- ) was born in Venezuela. Brought on by Gestapo torture, his father Kurt committed suicide when Konrad was still a toddler, so his Venezuelan mother and the three children decided to join grandpa Otto in Germany. After WW2, Otto Bernheimer had returned to Munich as soon as it was safe to do so, and had eventually reclaimed his pre-war home and business. Grandpa used those last precious years of his life teaching Konrad everything that the child would need to know about the arts. As an adult, Konrad bought a medieval Bavarian mountain burg/castle in Marquartstein as a family home and repository for the family’s collections, at the same time as he was renting a small gallery in Munich.

Konrad began to deal in Old Master paintings and in 1985 opened Bernheimer Fine Arts behind Sotheby's in London, offering porcelain, furniture, paintings, tapestries, textiles and sculpture. But Konrad’s special contribution to family history was eventually moving the business from a more broadly-based art and antiques business to one specialising in Old Masters. Would grandfather Otto have been pleased? Otto loved antiques. so he wanted the family’s treasures to be donated to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Since Konrad loved paintings, he wanted the treasures to be donated to the Alte Pinakothek. 

Konrad Bernheimer, 2016
Chairman of Colnaghi 
Photo credit: AFA News

Konrad’s eventual connection to Colnaghi Art Dealership in London was a perfect choice. In 1937 Colnaghi had become a limited company with three directors. They moved to Old Bond St in 1940, sharing facilit­ies with Knoedler, the American-based art dealership. Jacob Roth­schild bought Colnaghi after WW2 ended, enabling Colnaghi’s European centre to expand into the New York art world. Finally Munich’s Konrad Bernheimer bought Colnaghi in 2001.

By then, Konrad made the decision to separate the older and more classical art forms, which would be centred in London, from the more modern arts which would be centred in Munich. Konrad Bernheimer’s daughters, the fifth generation of this splendid family, loved the modern.

As a result, the family decided to sell their oldfashioned Burg Marquartstein in Bavaria. Sotheby’s in London handled the November 2015 auction; their auction catalogue told the Bernheimer family’s history and its royal connections, noting that this was one of the finest collections of traditional art and antiquities from the famous Bernheimer Palais in Munich and from their Bavarian castle.

Art objects at Burg Marquartstein, 11th-century castle in Bavaria .
Konrad Bernheimer brought them to London for the Sotheby's auction


Munich can rightly be called a Mecca for coin and medal scholars and collectors, and the Ka'aba at the centre of this Mecca is Hirsch Auctions. These days Hirsch runs its business on the site of the former Bavarian State Parliament in Munich, but its first auction was a much smaller affair, conducted by Otto Helbig in 1888.

This excellent Jewish auction company specialised in coins, medals, antiquities and gold, but was closed and Aryanised in the 1930s. The Hirsch family forced to leave Germany, Gerhard Hirsch going to Prague and thence deported to Theresienstat. He survived the camps and returned to Munich after the war. But he could not re-open the business trading in antique and rare coins in his own name  until 1953. Dr Franscia Bernheimer, niece of Gerhard Hirsch, took over the business after Uncle Gerhard’s death in 1982.

But here is the surprise! Hirsch owner and auctioneer, Dr Francisca Bernheimer, is also the granddaughter (on her paternal side) of our Otto Bernheimer, the second director of Haus Bernheimer. Francisca’s father, Ludwig Bernheimer, had also been a director of the family company.


Andrew said...

I suppose there were many failures by displaced families trying to re-establish themselves in business after the war, but this family was certainly not among them.

Student of History said...

It is usually said that grandpa sets up a business and does well, dad modernises the business and maximises its success, and grandson loses it all. Not so true in the art world maybe.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Your description of Bernheimer's stock made me wish I could have gone shopping there! After the Nazi devastations, it is amazing that they were able to reestablish their business, but to me it is even more amazing that with WWII a recent memory, they would wish to return to Germany.

Hels said...


that was so true for most families. The majority died and some escaped to other countries. But it was a very brave man (Otto Bernheimer) who returned to Munich after the war and eventually reclaimed his lovely family home and his booming pre-war business.

I know how hard it was to reclaim family property. My husband and his siblings tried to reclaim their parents' very modest little home which had been Aryanised after 1939. The bank had lost all real estate records and so the family could never prove prior ownership.

Hels said...


...and the grandson loses it all to booze, gambling or insane investments. True! How different were the Bernheimers....the fifth generation is just coming into its own now.

But then also look at the Wartskis who send three of their sons from Russia to Britain in 1876. Four generations of sons and sons in law have created one of the most successful art businesses in the UK selling Carl Fabergé art objects, jewellery, silver and even Russian art.

Nathan Wildenstein, had established an art dealership in Paris after fleeing Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. The art business was consolidated and expanded under his son, then his grandson Daniel Wildenstein took the art to New York in 1940. In 1990, the next generation of Wildensteins took over the family company.

I am less certain about Tiffany & Co. in the USA. Started by Charles Lewis Tiffany in the mid C19th, it did brilliantly under son Louis Comfort Tiffany and so on into the next century. But are the great grandchildren still involved?

Hels said...


It must have been a terrible decision for the survivors to make. On one hand Germany was their beloved home, their language, the culture they were familiar with, where their universities were. On the other hand, Germany must have seemed like an unbelievable hell on earth, during and after WW2.

Yet... yet.... Germans always believed that their country was the most literate, culturated and educated nation on the planet. Even after 1945, the idea of art collectors, dealers, patrons and writers living out the rest of their lives in exile seemed an intolerable thought.

Dina said...

The Helbig Hirsch Bernheimer family sounded pretty impressive as well. I wish my parents and grandparents had been so deeply involved in the art world.

Hels said...


another excellent family firm, with the third generation still at her peak.

Have there been any changes in Munich-based Gerard Hirsch Company? I would say two. In addition to trading coins and gold, now the arts of the ancient world have been added to the company's portfolio. And the company relocated in 2014 from its original home to a newer, larger office; it has much more space for exhibitions, auctions and libraries.

MrsFancyPants said...

This post reminded me of ISIS and their plundering/destruction of ancient treasures, seeing them only as something to profit from as quickly as possible or destroy, not recognizing their true value.

Hels said...


Agreed! ISIS certainly does destroy ancient treasures at will, but only if they recognise the art and architecture's value as a historical and aesthetically pleasing record of "the enemy".

When the Nazis emptied the art galleries of Degenerate Art, they only destroyed or sold those paintings and sculptures that "the enemies" adored. If the paintings and sculptures were politically and ideologically pleasing to the Nazis, the works were given to the homes of high Nazi officials for their viewing pleasure. Or put in Nazi-approved public galleries.