Sometimes I just say the wrong thing, and then of course it’s too late to take it back. So to expiate my sins, I guess I have to write about it. It happened two years ago, right after my wife and I, baby in tow, had finished viewing arguably the world’s greatest Picasso collection in private hands. Or at least formerly in private hands, as the famous art dealer, Heinz Berggruen, all but gave it to Germany in return for a lousy $150,000,000 and a rent-free penthouse in his eponymous Berlin museum. Still teetering from his stunning, earth-shattering collection, baby in tow, we stumbled into the bookstore at the ground level. While I’m examining his autobiography, my wife Casey starts tugging at my sleeve, saying, “That’s him! Isn’t that him?” Sure enough, I examine the slight, aged but still handsome figure, then the book cover, and then him again, and it’s Berggruen all right, in all his 90 some-odd years of glory, hanging out in his bookstore to chat with visitors. We learned later that the bookstore is indeed where the old man spends much of his time, taking pleasure in meeting the people who took the time to see his magnificent collection.
With so many wonderful images wafting through my mind, there was barely enough room for any other thoughts. The first one that managed to squeeze through was how could one man have collected so many great Picassos, including so many of my all-time favorites? I was reminded of Vollard’s famous saying (Picasso’s first art dealer), which I never fail to trot out at appropriate occasions and lord over my wife, “I made a good living selling art, but I made a fortune on the art I kept for myself.” But, still, what was this guy’s secret? His collection is too other-worldly and priceless to reduce to mere dollars, but if one just had to crunch the numbers, it would easily be valued in the billions. I dutifully purchased and subsequently read his autobiography, hoping to learn the secret that would catapult my nascent gallery into the stratosphere. I concluded that this guy, though perhaps not a rocket scientist, was nonetheless endowed with excellent taste. Who else would have sold off his van Gogh’s, Gauguin’s, and most of the rest of his other art just to plow the proceeds into more Picasso’s? A man after my own heart…. It goes without saying that he also must have mastered “the art of the deal”, to borrow a Trumpism. But, mostly, I figured, he surely must have been in the proverbial right place at the right time to have amassed his tremendous collection.
My next thought was, why Berlin? After all, hadn’t he escaped the Nazis just before the war and lived most of his life in Paris? So why not Paris or even London, where his collection had been on view for several years? Why would a man like him choose to forsake beautiful, charming Paris for cold, drab, bombed-out Berlin? They say that Berlin is a happening place, but, after only two days there, such was not yet my impression.
Casey and I had struck up a conversation with Berggruen. After learning that we were Picasso art dealers, he graciously offered to consider buying from us, to which I actually laughed out loud. But my question, why Berlin, put a damper on the conversation. He didn’t like its implications, I suppose, and he sternly showed us the door immediately thereafter before I even knew what had happened, but not before disapprovingly answering it as follows. He said he had donated his collection to the German people so as to contribute to their moral reconstruction by placing the works of the “degenerate” artist in their midst whom the Nazis had blacklisted. Well, this was another personal first–I had never been bounced from a museum before. So I had blown my chances at the client of a lifetime, not an insignificant prospect for a fledgling art dealer. So it goes…. And yet, you gotta respect a guy like that for returning to the country which had rained death and destruction upon most of his family and his coreligionists. Forgiving, if not forgetting, is admirable. I only wished he would someday do the same for my foot-in-mouth disease.