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Émigré Art Dealers and the American Art Market

Over the last fifteen years, the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art has devoted significant energy to the study of Nazi-looted art through its World War II-Era Provenance Research Project. The museum’s collection also includes many significant works of modern art that were acquired through art dealers who fled Nazi Germany or other Nazi-occupied European countries and resettled in New York during the late 1930s. They formed part of a mass emigration of artists and art world professionals (including art historians and museum curators) from Nazi-occupied Europe. While most of the art dealers who emigrated were Jewish and left Europe primarily to escape antisemitic persecution, some came to the United States because of the Nazi regime's opposition to the modern art they handled. Together, these dealers transformed the American art market. They introduced many American collectors—including the Eskenazi Museum’s first two directors, Henry Radford Hope and Thomas T. Solley—to a wide range of European modernist artists, offered new sources of support for emerging American artists, and facilitated acquisitions of modern art by American museums. Émigré art dealers associated with our collection include Klaus Perls, Karl Nierendorf, Serge Sabarsky, Paul Rosenberg, and Curt Valentin. These five remarkable dealers—and some of the works the museum acquired from them—are introduced below.

Paul Rosenberg (born France, 1881–1959)

Paul Rosenberg was born into a prominent family of art dealers. Like his father, Alexandre, whose Parisian gallery represented the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists during the late nineteenth century, Paul championed the most innovative artists of his day. These included the Cubist painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, for whom the Rosenberg Gallery had an exclusive contract from 1918 to 1940.

Narrow, horizontal still life depicting a pitcher, lemons and other fruit. A transparent tray rests on top of a white napkin.
Fig. 1
Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963). The Napkin Ring, 1929. Oil and sand on canvas, 16 x 47 ½ in. (40.6 x 120.7 cm). Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry R. Hope, 69.56

After Rosenberg became Georges Braque’s exclusive dealer in 1922, he commissioned the artist to paint four horizontal still lifes, which were then reproduced as mosaics and installed in the dining room of Rosenberg’s Paris apartment. The Napkin Ring was among these four, known as the “Rosenberg Quartet.” The painting features the simplified composition and palette associated with Synthetic Cubism, which Braque helped innovate and continued to explore throughout his career.

Taking advantage of an increased interest abroad in French modernism and worried about the rise of fascism on the European continent in the 1930s, Rosenberg and his brother-in-law, Jacques Helft, opened a branch of the gallery in London. He also lent extensively to international exhibitions in the late 1930s. Nineteen of his paintings by Braque, including The Napkin Ring, were featured in a retrospective organized in 1939 by the Arts Club of Chicago. By the time the exhibition closed in early 1940, it was impossible for the works to be returned to war-torn Europe. The pictures were instead sent to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and then forwarded to Rosenberg in September 1940 when he arrived in New York, where he opened another successful gallery. Hope purchased The Napkin Ring from Rosenberg’s New York gallery in 1944, donating it to the Eskenazi Museum in 1969.

At his New York gallery, Rosenberg began showing the work of both established and emerging American artists alongside the French modernists he had long championed. Marsden Hartley, whose Three Friends was acquired by Hope in 1944, was one of the American artists Rosenberg promoted. Hartley is admired for his modernist figurative style, which bears the influence of the German Expressionist painters with whom he worked and exhibited in the years prior to World War I. Unfortunately, Hartley’s visits to Germany, including a trip to Bavaria in 1933–34, also inspired admiration for National Socialist ideals, including “racial purity” and a distrust of urban culture. Yet because Hartley was publicly circumspect about his attraction to National Socialism, it is unlikely that Rosenberg was aware that the artist he championed supported the very ideology that drove him out of Europe.

Back in Paris the Nazis requisitioned the townhouse that had housed Rosenberg’s gallery and apartment to serve as a branch of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, an antisemitic propaganda organ. They also looted approximately four hundred of Rosenberg’s paintings that remained in France. After the war, Rosenberg spent many years trying to recover these works, about three hundred of which were restituted during his lifetime.

Curt Valentin (born Germany, 1902–1954)

Curt Valentin trained in the art gallery business with renowned modernist art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. He joined Karl Buchholz’s gallery in Berlin in 1933, just as the Nazis came to power in Germany. In 1936, due to the declining status of modern art under the Nazi regime, Buchholz decided to open a branch of his gallery in New York, and Valentin, who had Jewish ancestry, was the natural choice to leave Germany to run the new gallery. Valentin arrived in New York in 1937 bearing an export license from the Reich Ministry of Fine Art.1 This enabled him to transfer works of art abroad for sale. Many of the works Valentin sold in New York were examples of what the Nazis called “degenerate art”—works in modern styles no longer deemed acceptable in Germany. In summer 1937, about 21,000 works of modern art were removed from German state-run museums. Some were displayed in the propaganda exhibition Degenerate Art, and many were sold abroad, including this work by sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, now in the Eskenazi Museum’s collection. Buchholz facilitated many such sales, often by sending works to Valentin in New York. More information about works confiscated as “degenerate art” can be found through Freie Universität Berlin's "Degenerate Art" Research Center.

Although Valentin benefited financially from the Nazis’ dispersal of modern art, he also featured these works in exhibitions critical of Nazi art policy, and used them to build a new American market for German modernist artists who were suffering under Nazi rule.

Family portrait with eight figures and a dog.
Fig. 3
Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950). Hope Family Portrait, 1950. Oil on canvas, 80 ¼ x 35 in. (204 x 89 cm). Gift of the Hope Family, 2002.73

Max Beckmann, who first achieved renown for his unflinching depictions of urban life in Weimar Germany, was among the German artists championed by Valentin in the United States. Beckmann immigrated to the Netherlands immediately following the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in July 1937. Although he hoped to move to the United States, restrictive immigration policies prevented him from doing so until 1947, when he received several offers to teach at American universities, including Indiana University. Although Henry Hope was disappointed that Beckmann instead accepted a position at Washington University in Saint Louis, he commissioned this family portrait from the artist in 1950. As he later recalled, “the choice of Beckmann was made for two reasons: 1) I admired the several portraits he did in St. Louis and the group portrait[s] . . . done in Amsterdam. . . . The other reason was that we were close friends of Curt Valentin and he offered to make the arrangements for us.”2 The portrait typifies Beckmann’s penchant for portraying his sitters as if they are lost in their own thoughts, unaware of those around them.

Valentin’s gallery in New York was also known for its representation of modern sculptors, including renowned British sculptor Henry Moore. Moore’s biomorphic figural style developed under the influence of Surrealism in the 1930s. At that time, Moore also began incorporating more negative space into his sculptures. The negative spaces in Reclining Nude—the openings between the figure’s arms, legs, and torso—provide a sense of lightness to the heavy stone carving. After visiting the artist’s 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Hope, who already owned Moore’s Four Forms, asked Valentin whether one of the sculptor’s reclining figures was available. Moore was then working on this Reclining Figure, and when he completed it in 1947, Valentin contacted Hope, describing the sculpture as “the finest piece you could buy.”3

Karl Nierendorf (born Germany, 1889–1947)

After leaving the banking profession during Germany’s post–World War I economic crisis, Karl Nierendorf opened his first gallery in Cologne in 1920. He specialized in work by the Blaue Reiter circle of German Expressionists, which had centered around the artist Wassily Kandinsky in Munich between 1911 and 1914. After taking over the Berlin gallery Graphische Kabinett in 1923, he also promoted artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a postwar, socially critical style. Affected by the Nazi party’s antagonistic attitude toward modern art and plagued by health concerns, Nierendorf moved to the United States in 1936. At the Galerie Nierendorf in New York (opened January 1937), he promoted artists branded “degenerate” in Germany, taking advantage of his connections with the growing émigré community to place their work with collectors. He also supported emerging American artists, including some, like Adolph Gottlieb, who would become central to the Abstract Expressionist movement after World War II.

Some of the artists Nierendorf worked with in New York were, like him, European immigrants. Ukrainian-born Alexander Archipenko was one example, though Archipenko had arrived in New York much earlier, in 1923. This sculpture, carved around the time of his immigration, reflects Archipenko’s interest in ancient art. It bears a strong resemblance, in particular, to Cycladic figures produced in the third millennium BCE. Archipenko’s figure was shown in 1944 at Nierendorf’s gallery in a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work. Hope acquired the work from Nierendorf shortly afterward.

Klaus Perls (born Germany, 1912–2008)

The son of Berlin art dealers, Klaus Perls was studying art history in Munich in 1933, when the Nazis came to power. At that time, the Nazis mandated that German universities stop granting degrees to Jews. Perls was able to complete his studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland before immigrating to the United States in 1935. In 1937, with his brother Frank, he opened the Perls Galleries on New York’s Madison Avenue, specializing in modern French and contemporary American artists.

Like Nierendorf, Perls was attracted to the work of the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. Archipenko lived from 1908 to 1921 in Paris, where he explored the sculptural possibilities of the new Cubist style. The Draped Woman was designed during his time in Paris, but cast in 1925, two years after he settled in the United States. Archipenko often sought to convey the dynamism and energy of modern life in his work, but many of his sculptures, including The Draped Woman, also convey a classical sensibility. This sculpture was purchased from the Perls Gallery for the Eskenazi Museum of Art in 1975 by Solley.

Serge Sabarsky (born Austria, 1912–1996)

Serge Sabarsky, born to a Russian Jewish expatriate family in Vienna, designed sets for the Viennese cabaret Simplicissimus prior to the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938). As a result, Sabarsky immediately fled Austria. He settled in New York in 1939 after a brief interlude in Paris. Sabarsky had first encountered German Expressionism in Frankfurt, where he attended school for a year in the mid-1920s. He began collecting German and Austrian Expressionism in the 1950s, and established a gallery specializing in this genre in 1968.

Before the 1970s, there was a limited market for German Expressionism in the United States, so Sabarsky was one of only a handful of dealers—mostly émigrés—who specialized in this area. This work by Alexei von Jawlensky was acquired from the artist’s estate by the New York gallery of Hungarian Jewish émigré Abris Silberman, and later handled by Sabarsky, who sold it to the Eskenazi Museum in 1975. Jawlensky was a central figure in the Blaue Reiter circle based in Munich before World War I. Although characterized as part of the German Expressionist movement, the group included a number of Russian expatriates, including Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne van Werefkin, and Jawlensky. Jawlensky’s oeuvre is dominated by portraits and heads. Their stylization, frontal orientation, and symbolic palettes recall the icons of saints that play a prominent role in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Working closely with Sabarsky, Solley established an impressive collection of German and Austrian Expressionism—one of the largest such collections at an American university art museum. Sabarsky may have introduced Solley to one of his favorite artists, the Austrian Egon Schiele, whose work he first encountered at the office of his childhood dentist in Vienna. Schiele’s unique style is defined by an aggressive, emotional, and often erotic, intensity which has made his work controversial. Sabarsky acquired this powerful self-portrait at auction in London in 1974, and sold it to the Eskenazi Museum two years later. The verso of the watercolor bears the monogram of its first owner, the prominent Viennese designer Koloman Moser (1868–1918). Moser, like Schiele, was a member of avant-garde circles in pre–World War I Vienna.

Sabarsky was passionate about enhancing the public’s awareness of German and Austrian Expressionism. In addition to organizing numerous traveling exhibitions, he drafted visionary plans to open a museum devoted to this subject. The Neue Galerie opened in New York in 2001, five years after Sabarsky’s death. Its establishment was brought to fruition by Ronald S. Lauder, former American Ambassador to Austria.

Jenny McComas
Curator of European and American Art


1 Per memorandum from the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste to Curt Valentin, September 22, 1936. Jane Wade Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (microfilm reel 2322).

2 Henry Hope, letter dated December 12, 1969. Quoted in Erhard and Barbara Göpel, Max Beckmann: Katalog der Gemälde, 2 vols. (Bern: Verlag Kornfeld, 1976), 501.

3 Letter from Curt Valentin to Henry Hope, December 11, 1947. Curt Valentin Papers, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York, CV.III.35.

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McComas, Jenny. "Émigré Art Dealers and the American Art Market." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020.

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