10 February 2016

German art in Bolivia

by Marc Masurovsky

I took a virtual stroll through an online Ketterer Kunst catalogue dated December 3, 2015 and this is what I stumbled on:

A watercolor by Otto Mueller, dated 1927, entitled “Zigeunerwagen im Walde.” It was Lot No. 238 and measured 50.3 x 68 cm.

As with every art object whose provenance we take interest in, I have to ask the most basic questions even if they sound moronic or uninformed to the experts and those who think that I should know better than to ask them.

In Otto Mueller’s summary biography, I find out that he was a painter in training in the 1920s active in Southern Germany, often visiting Munich and its museums. He eventually settled in Halle where he lived and worked throughout the Third Reich and beyond.

The provenance of this watercolor begins with the Nierendorf/Karsch collection in Berlin. Being a novice, I “googled” Nierendorf/Karsch to see what would come up. The Galerie Nierendorf became the “Galerie Meta de Nierendorf” in 1955. However, there are no indications anywhere of a collection bringing the two names together. Is this a liberty taken by Ketterer Kunst or does this nomenclature imply that Nierendorf and Karsch had a joint interest in the Mueller work? That is probable and conceivable. 

Look again.

Josef and Karl Nierendorf were brothers actively involved in the art trade in Germany.  Karl died in 1947 and Josef died in 1949. They were in business together in Berlin where, after Hitler’s rise to power, they reorganized their gallery and called it “Galerie Nierendorf GmbH.” Karl Nierendorf emigrated to New York in 1936 where he opened the Nierendorf Gallery. Josef remained in Berlin as the sole manager of the gallery that he had founded with his brother. Pressed into service in the Wehrmacht, Josef was able to store some of the inventory from his gallery in a small shop in Berlin. He died before he could resume business as a gallery owner in postwar Germany. His stepson, Florian Karsch, opened the “Galerie Meta de Nierendorf” in 1955.

Still, this does not answer the question about when Nierendorf/Karsch came into the possession of the Otto Mueller work. If Nierendorf/Karsch really means the “Galerie Meta de Nierendorf”, the work was sold after 1955 to the next owner. If not, it would mean that it was part of Josef Nierendorf’s private collection shared with Meta Karsch Nierendorf, Josef’s wife. Well, until further notice, we’ll never know how they acquired the piece, either directly from the artist or from another owner, or perhaps through a forced sale of confiscated goods that were auctioned in Berlin.

Even more intriguing is the next owner, Joaquin Herrmann, from La Paz, Bolivia. A search on the Internet yields cryptic and disjointed information about Joaquin Herrmann. Mr. Herrmann was a German citizen who presumably settled in Bolivia in the late 1940s. That could mean any number of things. German men who left a defeated Third Reich behind them tended to be either fugitives from Allied justice, businessmen looking for opportunities in far away lands where Germans were always welcome, or genuine emigrants seeking a completely new and different experience. Hard to tell which one of these descriptions fits Sr. Herrmann.

A slanted search into Herrmann reveals that he had a fondness for 20th century art. It so happens that Joaquin Herrmann bought another Mueller at Nierendorf in 1957 together with a work by Kirschner, and a 1948 work by Picasso, “Faune Souriant”.

By deduction, I could then posit that Herrmann might have acquired these works at about the same time—1957—from the Meta de Nierendorf gallery in Berlin. But I would not have known that had I not poked around and inquired more about Joaquin Herrmann. Hence, this “slanted search” into Herrmann revealed his penchant for German expressionists, regardless of his political and philosophical leanings and actions during WWII.

Another interesting indicator about Joaquin Herrmann is that he was familiar with Williem Arntz, a co-founder of the Ketterer auction house in 1947. That piece of information was found in the Arntz papers at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, CA.

It is not possible to know off hand how many people named Joaquin Herrmann were in business in La Paz, Bolivia as of the 1950s. In the event that this is the same person, here is what can be found about him:

1/ 24 October 1950: Joaquin Herrmann co-founded with Raul Pappenheim the “Asociación Chilena de Agencias de Publicidad (AChAP) in La Paz. The founding meeting took place in the offices of “Propaganda Clarín.”

2/ From this, it appears that Mr. Herrmann started off as an advertising executive with disposable income and ties to Chile.

3/ twenty years later, on September 11, 1973, a military coup d’etat in Santiago, Chile, led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew and assassinated the sitting president, Salvador Allende, and many of his followers. In an unsigned and undated analysis of the “counter-revolution in Chile”, a man named Joaquin Herrmann, described as a millionaire owning some of the choicest real estate in the Bolivian capital, was suspected of very cozy ties to the Bolivian military and with peripheral involvement in the planning of the coup against the late President Allende. Even worse, he was suspected of harboring and associating with several Nazi war criminals, one of whom was Klaus Barbie aka Klaus Altmann, who had resettled in Bolivia after the end of WWII, evading Allied justice, having worked for a brief time for American intelligence as an anti-communist agent, and who distinguished himself as the “Butcher of Lyons” in France, notably as the assassin of Jean Moulin, then leader of the French Resistance.

Regardless of where the truth lies, this is what transpired about an art collector named Joaquin Herrmann, based on a simple foray into an unusual provenance concerning a watercolor produced by a German artist, Otto Mueller, who spent much of his postwar life in the German Democratic Republic.