Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), first dealer of Cubist painters, was able to gather an amazing collection of Cubist works as early as 1914. As a German dealer settled in Paris since 1907, Kahnweiler spent the whole period of WWI in Switzerland refusing to take position in the conflict between France and Germany and was consequently considered as enemy by France. The French Government seized the entire stock of his gallery at the end of 1914 in order to be sold at auctions. The financial product of the sales went to Treasury Department as war compensation. The four Kahnweiler sales that took place from June 1921 to May 1923 was an unprecedented event in the history of modern art and was disastrous for the emerging Cubist art market. Seven years’ worth of carefully accumulated stock, totaling more than eight hundred Cubist works were thrown on the market, with underestimated prices, decreasing as sales went along. If cubist lovers and Kahnweiler’s friends were outraged by such sales, low prices allowed others to acquire works that they couldn’t have afforded and created a new category of buyers: small collectors and private dealers that entered the sales for pure speculation. For many bidders - as we are about to see with examples of André Breton and Paul Eluard - their role is however more complex, buying by passion but also with full awareness of the profits they could achieve. I have discovered that many works changed hands several times in the couple of years just following the sales, increasing their value, sometimes up to ten fold.
Kahnweiler who was the discoverer of these works, would not remain a passive witness. After six years of exile in Switzerland - as a pacifist he refused to engage in the war, neither for his birth country nor his adopted country -, he moved back to Paris in February 1920 and opened the following fall a new gallery, the Galerie Simon (29 bis rue d’Astorg), thanks to his friend André Simon who acted as backer. The German dealer had to start all over again with limited financial means. While the French Government forbade him to bid himself at his own sales, he created a syndicate, known as “Grassa”, including the German art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, the Swiss collector Hermann Rupf – long time friend with whom he stayed during the war - his brother Gustav, his brother-in-law Hans Forchheimer and his stepdaughter Louise Godon, later known as Louise Leiris. This syndicate would support the value of the artists of the Kahnweiler gallery at the maximum of their financial possibilities, especially for Gris works that were the most difficult to sale, making the syndicate actually the largest buyer of works in the first two sales.
A sale ... international, collectors and artists brokers
In term of quantity of artworks, Léonce Rosenberg, cubist dealer but also rival of Kahnweiler who acted as expert of the first and second sale, is the second most important buyer but his name was also used to buy for his own clients who wished to remain anonymous. It is still unclear which proportion of the purchases was for him, which for his brother Paul Rosenberg and last for clients such as André Lefèvre or Sacheverell Sitwell, an English writer and art critic. Indeed, in the wide range of buyers, many of them sent friends, agents or were buying under fake names to keep their purchase confidential. Among those present at the sales, we find many international dealers such as Thannhauser, Flechtheim, Brummer, Paul Guillaume, Bernheim-Jeune, major collectors Alphonse Kann, Baroness Gourgaud, André Level, Alfred Richet but also art critics Maurice Raynal or Adolphe Basler and all young artists from this time: sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and his fellow Oscar Mietschaninoff, Dadaïst André Breton, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos, Tristan Tzara. Amedée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, creators of the Purist movement were buying as consultants for the collector Raoul La Roche. Being fully confident in their taste, La Roche gathered, thanks to the Kahnweiler sales, an impressive collection of Cubist works. Instead of selling off his Kahnweiler acquisitions for fast profits – like several other major collectors did – La Roche kept his collection intact until he gave a part to the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris in 1952 and the same year another part to the Kunstmuseum Basel, completed by a second gift there in 1963. In a letter to his parents, on November 1921, Le Corbusier described the event: "have participated last week in the Kahnweiler sequestration sale (all Cubist paintings from the beginning). Bought the 6 finest Picassos and the nicest Braque for a friend. Have kept 2 Picassos that are in my house, and 1 Braque at Oz[enfant] as the opportunity was too good. Prices have plummeted because of the slump and paintings were taken by people like us at prices five times lower than those in galleries." (Letter by Le Corbusier to his parents, 21 November 1921, archives Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris) Some artists in the Kahnweiler’s stable, especially Léger or Braque protested vehemently against the sales and refused to be part of this economical disaster but other young artists were acting as consultants and wanted a part of the plunder.
Beside Ozenfant and Le Corbusier who kept some works for their own collection thanks to the generosity of La Roche, the case of André Breton together with Paul Eluard needs to be detailed as they are particularly representative of buyers who purchased works they loved and that they couldn’t have afforded in other circumstances, but also, more or less despite themselves, contributed to the high speculation on cubist artworks just following the sales, using art as form of currency.
The creation of André Breton's collection
Breton and Eluard are known to have attended the Kahnweiler sales to accompany the collector Jacques Doucet. Indeed Breton had become Doucet’s consultant at the end of 1920. Breton is known to have protested publicly against the downward speculation, yet he attended the four sales under the instruction of Doucet and he did bid for himself. From the first sale, Breton acquired a small Picasso’s Head for 350 frs that remained after their divorce in his wife’s collection [Daix 643 today at MNAM], in the second sale he acquired about ten works by Braque and Picasso among which Braque Woman with a mandolin for 500 frs (lot: 30, Thyssen Museum in Madrid [IMAGE Romilly72]). In the 3rd sale, his name appears in annotated catalogues as the buyer of at least three Braques including the Fishing Boats [lot 43, 360 frs, MFA Houston] and one large Léger The Staircase, state 2 (lot: 105, 230 frs, Museo Thyssen, Madrid). In the last sale, he bought several works including the iconic Picasso papier collé Head that he would resale later to Penrose [IMAGE Daix 595]. Breton was indeed an important bidders for all sales but the works acquired then, for himself or on the behalf of others - lots of them in the collection of international modern art museums today - were almost all resold by 1930.
The reconstitution of Breton’s collection and his purchase at the Kahnweiler sales, revealed new information on works that passed through his hands or those of his relatives. André Breton’s first wife, born Simone Kahn, seems indeed to have played a role that was unknown until then. Simone and Breton met in June 1920, and from then she played an active part in the Surrealist movement, ensuring the permanence of the Surrealist office (la Centrale surréaliste), she even published a text in the first issue of the Revolution Surréaliste. [ill. of Simone in the studio rue Fontaine in 1927]. One year later – at the same time as the first Kahnweiler sale - she convinced her parents to let her marry Breton thanks to the official position offered by Doucet to Breton to become his adviser and librarian for 20 000 francs [twenty thousand] per year. Simone’s parents instead of giving her a one-time dowry, provided the couple with a monthly allowance enabling them to live properly and even to begin an art collection. The correspondence between Simone and her cousin Denise Levy reveals precious information on their acquisitions, mentioning the purchase, exchange and sale of works, some of which came from the Kahnweiler auction. Denise’s husband, Doctor Georges Levy, was a passionate and active collector as well. From the time of the 3rd sale, Simone told her cousin that she would buy there some Braques and Légers for them if possible and on July 10th 1922 wrote: “I bought a painting for you and Georges. A large Léger of the kind that Georges told me he loved in Germany. 73 cm x 95 cm, 240F + 17.5% = 282. But you can choose between this one and a little Braque that cost (260 + 17.5%). Here is my opinion. The Léger is much better in terms of decor, furniture, and the Braque is infinitely more interesting as painting. Up to you."( Simone Breton, Lettres à Denise, Ed. Joelle, Gallimard, Paris, 2005, 10 July 1922, p. 97).
In the following exchange we learn that if Denise wants to have both, Simone needs to have Philippe Soupault’s agreement. It seems that Simone, André Breton and other surrealist member Philippe Soupault were indeed business partners, buying jointly from the Kahnweiler sale. That is actually confirmed by a letter of June 1924 in which Simone wrote: “Soupault request to carry his share of paintings and so we have to sell some.” ( Lettres à Denise, 20 June 1924, p.188).
In the last sale, a letter dated May 14th 1923 confirms that Simone bought again for their cousins a small Picasso and a Braque: “First, the Kahnweiler sale. I bought you another Braque [lot 123] which celebrates Mozart (I thought of Georges) for 200 francs, bigger than yours. And a small lovely Picasso for 220F that I think you will prefer to the great Léger that I initially took for you, and that looks a little too close to yours. I can keep it. I'll send them to you tomorrow. If the Pic.[asso] does not please you, send it back to me and I'll give you the Leger.” (Lettres à Denise, 14 May 1923, p. 133).
The Picasso mentioned in the letter may be the lot: 340, Head of a Young Girl, (Daix 376 [IMAGE]), that is the only Picasso work in that sale sold about 220frs.
The Braque painting Violin, Mozart Kubelik, 1912, [IMAGE] is now in the collection of the Metropolitan as part of the Leonard Lauder collection and was known as La Roche collection as former provenance. It has long been identified as lot 123 of the fourth sale, where – we know now – it was bought by the Bretons for Denise and Georges Levy. The price was 200 frs including fees. Only one year later, Kahnweiler offered to buy it back from them for 2 500 frs, more than 10 times its auction price. It seems likely that Kahnweiler sold it to La Roche in October 1925 (Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, marchand, éditeur, écrivain, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1984, p. 140). At this time, Simone and André Breton frequented Kahnweiler for art and for business: they just discovered the work of André Masson who had his first solo exhibition at the galerie Simon (Exhibition André Masson, 25 February – 8 March 1924, Galerie Simon, Paris) and Kahnweiler tried to collaborate with Breton by offering to publish one of his text.
Cubism, "source of profits" for André Breton
The collaboration of the cousins and their husbands shows that they were all aware of the profit-making potential of Cubist art from the sequestration sales. The correspondence mentions deals and exchanges possibilities with Kahnweiler but also with Léonce Rosenberg when they needed cash assets. The German dealer Karl Nierendorf who seemed to have been close to the Levy is also regularly mentioned. Indeed, Denise and Georges Levy lived in Strasbourg close to the German border and were going frequently to Cologne to buy works at the Nierendorf gallery and at the branch of galerie Alfred Flechtheim. After the war, the Germany economy was collapsing from a super-inflation, particularly in 1922-23 when the paper mark was virtually worthless (multiplied by 100 billions). This extraordinary devaluation of the mark increased considerably the spending power of foreigners, making francs or dollars extremely strong and the mark, extremely fluctuant, unreliable. This situation is clearly mentioned in the cousins’ correspondence. From the end of 1922, Denise wrote to Simone: “Georges would like to go to Cologne especially as the Mark is currently at 70” (Lettre de Denise Lévy à Simone Breton, 3 August 1922, private archives) and few months later while she just comes back from a trip in Germany: “There would really be money to make for André, you should take care of it. There will be perhaps favorable things to buy or André could sell some. One wants in Germany paintings of French painters in French currency and they are highly sought after, especially Braque, Picasso, Derain, Léger” (Letter by Denise Lévy to Simone Breton, 5 November 1922, private archives). Denise continues later to ask for prices of Braque and Léger that Simone could provide in Paris. Georges Levy himself writes to Simone in 1924 mentioning possible deals with Denise’s brother Jean Nordmann related to works that came from the sequestration sale. The journey of some works seems difficult to follow as they changed hands repeatedly. In a letter of May 1924, one year after the last sale, Georges wrote: “Nordmann can buy the Léger 2500 frs if you are still determined to sell it… To finance our next trip to Paris, I want to sell the Picasso (young girl) who is at Kahnweiler to Nordmann. I said it costs about 2300 frs” (Letter by Georges Lévy to Simone Breton, 24 May1924, private archives). If this young girl by Picasso that seems to be on deposit at Kahnweiler’s galerie is the one that Simone bought for her cousins in the last sale (lot 340 Image), it means that its price had risen ten fold. The Levys, with the help of Simone and the advice of Breton were really acting as private dealers as it’s clearly expressed a month later, still in a letter by Georges: “My Dear Simone, first/ what interests me about Nordmann is the possibility of earning money. I do not know if it is advantageous to offer him paintings of Eluard or that of K. Anyway - if you do not mind - it would be useful to go and ask the price of the Picasso at K.” (Lettre de Georges Lévy à Simone Breton 5 June 1924, private archives) and then continues “second at Eluard I saw several paintings that tempt me much. You can choose with André’s help which Chirico you like the most. If it’s not among the most expensive you can take two”. He ends by saying: “Braque interests me at the moment only with the same prices as in the Kahnweiler sales - so there will probably be nothing to do”. Indeed one year after the last and most disastrous of the Kahnweiler sales, Cubist artworks, despite the nationalist critics associating Cubism to “art boche” saw their prices increased considerably. They aroused great interest in the surrealist group thanks to their aesthetic qualities but also as a source of profit in trades amongst themselves and in deals with collectors.
Paul Eluard, speculate to support his family… but speculate passionately
Compared to Breton, the role of Paul Eluard is harder to characterize. By June 1924, Georges Levy had most probably visited his collection which was available for sale but Eluard had then disappeared. The poet was indeed very active on this secondary art market during the 20s, and actually throughout his entire life, by buying and selling but he participated to the speculation in a less intentional way, buying works by passion when his financial means would allow, then selling them when he was desperate for money. Such dealings allowed him primarily to subsist, he was known for his impulsive nature rather than his pragmatism. Although Eluard accompanied Breton in advising Jacques Doucet, no evidence proves that he had an official role as consultant for the fashion designer. Eluard began his own art collection, buying at the Uhde and Kahnweiler sequestration sales. We can reconstitute his purchases thanks to the sale of his own collection at Hotel Drouot on July 4th 1924. In March 1924, Eluard was experiencing a personal crisis: the ménage à trois he had formed with his wife and Max Ernst two years before was becoming too complicated to manage emotionally. His beloved wife Gala, was turning away from him. He could stand to share her with Max Ernst but couldn’t stand being the third wheel. He published then “Mourir de ne pas mourir” (Dying of not dying) as a oeuvre-testament (will book) and organized a dramatic escape on the other side of the globe, to the Pacific, without telling anyone. His only confidante remained Gala. He authorized her to sell their collection in order to get money [ill. 1ere page PV]. She selected only the most sellable works (sixty-three works). Eluard biographer Jean-Charles Gateau, revealed that their collection, at least of Chirico, was indeed much more important. The annotated copy of the sale catalogue, belonging to the auctioneer Me Bellier, as well as the official records of the sale’s result help to identify cubist works that came most probably from the Uhde and Kahnweiler sequestration auctions. Eluard was known to have acquired very few works but his own sale includes twelve Picassos, two Braques and four Gris. Among them, the lot 51 Picasso, The Glass [IMAGE, 800 frs Eluard/230 frs K.] that was acquired then by the Noailles. This work corresponds exactly to the lot 85 of the 4th Kahnweiler sale for which Eluard former provenance wasn’t known. The sale includes as well one papier collé and one painting by Braque, and four paintings by Gris that were all been identified by Douglas Cooper as coming from the 4th Kahnweiler sale. Paintings by Gris may have sold for lower prices than those by his fellow cubists, but they still doubled in value in the few months between the Kahnweiler and Eluard sales.
Eluard who was absent during the sale of his collection finally came back to Paris at the end of September 1924 after Gala had met him in either Saigon or Singapour. The travel expenses depleted most of their savings and they had lost a large part of their art collection. However, Eluard returned to buying and selling art, as he had done before his dramatic run away. Letters from Simone Breton to Denise Levy reveal that Eluard had still Chirico works for sale in October and that he bought many lots in the sale of the collection of dealer Georges Aubry, held at Hotel Drouot on November 24-25th, 1924- Simone: “Tell Georges that everything sold for a lot at the Aubry sale and that Eluard bought everything that was interesting excepted the Matisses” (Lettres à Denise, 30 November 1924, p. 217). This sale included about one hundred and sixty works by impressionist and modern artists, among which forty-four prints, drawings and one painting by Picasso. Georges Aubry did attend the Kahnweiler sequestration sales and if we cannot identify all works, some definitely come from there. Thanks to the minutes of the Aubry sale, we learn that Eluard bought 10 Picasso drawings and the only painting, lot 158: Ma Jolie [PHOTO Daix 740]. He acquired the Picasso cubist still-life for six thousand and five hundred frs, while Aubry purchased it one thousand seven hundred and twenty frs at the Kahnweiler 4th sale. However this work was known later as part of the collection Jacques Doucet and regarding its high price, Eluard bought it most probably on Doucet’s behalf or sold it to him right after.
Sales visited by all the intellectual avant-garde
From the Kahnweiler sales, these same works were sold in various auctions or in private deals in a very short time and each time, same people were buying and/or selling and each time prices increased. Breton and Eluard are two examples among dozens of self-proclaimed collectors who tried to speculate around the Kahnweiler sequestration sale. If their names were known as bidders in the Kahnweiler sales, their role on the secondary market in the twenties has been overlooked until now. They had a central position, gravitating around artists, collectors and established dealers. In order to earn money or just enjoy art, they participated to the rise of the market for Cubist art in France that lasted until the 1929 crisis.
An unpublished text written in December 1927 by Robert Desnos, one of the Surrealists who attended and bought for himself at the Kahnweiler sale summarized perfectly this period:
"As for the Kahnweiler sales, it was surely the craziest spectacle imaginable. One witnessed the birth of this speculative madness on painting that was to reign for years and that barely slows down in our time. All of what was then called 'the intellectual avant garde' had gathered there. We could take for a pittance (fabulous compared with pre-war prices) paintings that, a few months later, would be worth a fortune ” (Desnos archives, BLJD Paris).