Art dealer of the Avantgarde


The history of the Flechtheim gallery that spans two decades from 1913 to 1933 includes sensational auction results that show to what extent Alfred Flechtheim’s work and that of his friends and business partners was dependent on the events of the time and the political situation – the closure of the Galerie Flechtheim in World War I and the re-opening in 1919 in Düsseldorf during the economic blockade, the 1920s with inflation and the global economic crisis and ultimately persecution and ostracising by the National Socialists. Paul Cassirer and Hugo Helbing, for example, auctioned the contents of the Düsseldorf gallery, including 250 works of art, on 5 June, 1917 on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, after Flechtheim and his colleague Hanns Fehr were drafted into war service and the gallery could not be kept going. It was the first auction of contemporary art in Germany and the only display of French Modernism during the war. The auction attracted attention from as far afield as France itself and was the only international art event in Berlin during the war in Germany. As Germans living in France, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Wilhelm Uhde also lost a large number of paintings from their holdings in the course of the war that were confiscated and auctioned.

Kahnweiler’s holdings of Cubist works were sold in 1921–23 at four different auctions of more than 800 paintings held at the Hotel Drouot in Paris as part of reparation claims against France. Kahnweiler tried to fight the auctions but without success and went to some lengths not to make them that well know so as to create more favourable conditions for him to buy back the works. He asked Flechtheim just to publish a brief notice in ‘Der Querschnitt’ and not to write a detailed article. A purchasing syndicate or consortium comprising seven parties, including Flechtheim and Gustav Kahnweiler, was formed to buy back certain groups of works at these auctions. It successfully acquired 21 paintings (including works by Braque, Derain, Gris, Léger, Vlaminck and Picasso). Flechtheim’s contribution to the overall price of just under 25,000 francs was 6,000 francs. Wilhelm Uhde similarly found himself confronted by a forced sale of works he owned as his collection was also confiscated during World War I in Paris. In this case Flechtheim formed a consortium with Daniel-Henry and Gustav Kahnweiler, Kahnweiler’s brother-in-law Hans Forchheimer, sister-in-law Louise Leiris (née Godon, 1902–88) and Hermann Rupf (1880–1962) to buy back certain works. In this way they ensured that works could be bought at the lowest price possible by not bidding against each other and letting the price spiral upwards.

The financial situation in Alfred Flechtheim’s galleries came to a head once again during the Great Depression (1929). Flechtheim hoped to put some life back into his business by holding auctions. In cooperation with Georg Paffrath and Hugo Helbing an auction of the estate of the Düsseldorf banker and art collector Moritz Leiffmann (1853–1921) was held in November 1932. Its success however was obviously modest. Shortly after the National Socialists had come to power, things became particularly difficult for Alfred Flechtheim when an auction (once again in cooperation with Paffrath and Helbing) of paintings by Old Masters and more recent artists was broken up by the SA half way through on 11 March, 1933. Alfred Flechtheim himself was not present but Alex Vömel reported that Flechtheim ‘broke down completely’ when he heard about the aborted auction. This was confirmed by Flechtheim’s friend Thea Sternheim. Shortly after this unsettling event, Flechtheim emigrated to England by way of Switzerland and France.

After Flechtheim’s death in March 1937 in London, there was at least one further auction under the heading ‘Estate of Alfred Flechtheim’ at S.J. Mak van Waay’s, almost certainly at the behest of the Flechtheim Estate in Amsterdam. On 1 and 2 February, 1938, the art dealer Carel van Lier submitted 28 works by George Grosz for auction that Alfred Flechtheim had accepted as private property to pay off debts arising out of the contract between the dealer and the artist.