Art dealer of the Avantgarde


The Flechtheim family of merchants can be traced back to the 18th century. It originally came from Brakel in the eastern region of Westphalia where Alfred Flechtheim’s grandfather, Moses (1814–86), had founded a grain business called M. Flechtheim in 1845. His marriage to Henriette Feibes from Lengerich produced two sons, Alex (1846–1902) and Emil (1850–1933). The family moved to Münster in 1870 where, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, the company became an important supplier of grain to the Prussian battalion stationed there and expanded extremely successfully. Emil and Alex, who had been proprietors of the company since 1877, took advantage of the favourable location and established a subsidiary in Duisburg in 1884 and in Düsseldorf in 1895. The Münster branch was run by Alex and known as Flechtheim u. Comp., the original name M. Flechtheim being transferred to the company in Düsseldorf with Emil Flechtheim at its head, who had since moved to Düsseldorf with his family. Towards the end of the 19th century, the annual turnover of the Duisburg branch that operated under the name Rheinisch-Westfälische Speditions-Gesellschaft, amounted to between 10 and 12 million Marks. Both brothers were represented in all important offices and honorary posts at the corn exchange, public authorities and chambers of commerce. In keeping with their company’s slogan ‘Thue Recht, dann schäue Niemand’ (Be just and no one will bring you harm) the Flechtheim family and its business connections were internationally known. When Alex Flechtheim died in 1902 aged just 56, Emil took on the overall management. He had three children with his wife, Emma Heymann of Dortmund: Alfred (b. 1878), Herrmann (b. 1880) and Erna (b. 1883). Emil Flechtheim made his son, Alfred, a partner. Alfred saw himself as a Westphalian: “My parents are from Westphalia and, despite being a pure Semite, I can look back at a long line of Westphalian ancestors so that I can flatter myself with having roots in this region that go back just as far as those of the Drostes or the Arenbergs.” He initially took up the profession he was intended to follow and studied everything to do with the grain business in Switzerland, France, England and Russia.

The company business did not do very well and Flechtheim could not equal the high annual turnover achieved during his father’s and grandfather’s era before the turn of the century. From 1906, turnover sank drastically. Together with Arthur Löwenstein, Thea Sternheim’s first husband, Flechtheim looked for new markets in Spain and invested in antimony mines, among other things, without however really managing to increase the company’s capital to any significant extent. In 1913, the company faced ruin. Flechtheim commented on this in his diary as follows: “I have sacrificed the best years of my life to my parents; I no longer have any energy. I now 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 dishonour quite clearly. Better dead than dishonourable.”

The much-feared bankruptcy could only be averted through financial assistance from the Mittelrheinische Bank and the bank D.H. Stein of Cologne. Alfred Flechtheim ended his career as a grain merchant and, with the help of Paul Cassirer, became an art dealer.

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