Hugo Helbing (1863-1938) was the founder and director of Germany’s foremost auction house, the market leader in the German speaking countries between c. 1900 and 1935. At his headquarters in Munich, his branch offices in Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, as well as abroad, Helbing held more than 800 auctions, many of outstanding importance. His exquisite catalogues defined new standards in their exemplary assessment of objects and contributed significantly to Germany’s competitive position in the international art trade at the time. Helbing, who was honoured with many awards for his achievements and magnanimity, also published scholarly periodicals, among them the Monatsberichte über Kunstwissenschaft und Kunsthandel. Due to his Jewish origin Helbing was murdered in the wake of the Reichspogromnacht in 1938. The ZIKG Hugo Helbing Lecture – Exploring the Art Market commemorates his achievements every year. It was first held in 2016 on the occasion of the donation of annotated auction catalogues from his firm to the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Munich.
Exhibition Text (see below for link to online catalogue in German and English with text and illustrations)
Exhibition organised by the Central Institute for Art History in Munich on the occasion of a donation of a collection of annotated Hugo Helbing catalogues by Munich art dealer Gerhard Rudigier. In total, this collection comprises 698 catalogues from 1895 until 1937; 345 of which are fully annotated, 144 are partially or infrequently annotated, and only 209 contain no entries or annotations. The exhibition presents exemplarily some of the donated catalogues and provides information about the manifold activities of Hugo Helbing, the Jewish art dealer who was born in Munich on 23 April 1863 and who died here on 30 November 1938 from the effects of a brutal interrogation by the Gestapo (Secret State Police).
Presently, far more than 800 Helbing catalogues are known to the scholars in research; most of which can be viewed and consulted online by means of the important portals “German Sales 1930-1945” and “German Sales 1901-1929”, respectively, that are run by the University Library of Heidelberg. The catalogues now in possession of the ZI not only document the realized hammer prices, but also provide the names of the buyers who won the lots, and in many cases, give details about the consignors as well. These specifications are of exceptional significance for many research questions. Link
Hugo Helbing was born on 23 April 1863, the son of Munich textile and antiques dealer Siegmund Helbing. On 1 November 1885, when he was only 22 years old, Hugo Helbing opened a small art gallery in Munich. From 1887, he started to organize art auctions that where steadily increasing in number; in the beginning this was a cooperation with Albert Riegner, art dealer to the Munich court.
Around 1900, the premises of gallery and auction house “Galerie Helbing” were permanently expanded. In 1900, Helbing moved his business to Liebigstrasse 21, the corner house built by Gabriel von Seidl (1848-1913). Two years later, the extension building in Wagmüllerstrasse 15 was opened, thus allowing the 100th art auction to take place in April 1902 in Hugo Helbing’s very own “rooms, furnished like a museum”. The glass-roofed room was especially designed for auctions and must have ranked among “the most beautiful showrooms in Europe”.
In 1893, the first auction abroad took place in Basel, Switzerland. With the auction sale of the first part of Georg Hirth’s collection in 1898, Helbing was the first German auction house to put the spotlight on a great porcelain collection. In regards to the sale of Dr. Martin Schubart’s collection of paintings, it is said that the feuilleton of French magazine Le Temps even compared the Munich art market with its Paris counterpart.
In the spring of 1906, Helbing accepted Theodor Neustätter as his first partner in the growing business; therefore, he changed from sole proprietorship to a general partnership. In 1915, two more partners were welcomed: Dr. Ernst Spiegel, and Fritz Helbing (1888-1943), Hugo Helbing’s son from his first marriage with Sofie Liebermann.
The beginning of the 20th century was the heyday of art auctions in Germany. The number of auctions that took place at Helbing’s increased rapidly from 12 sales in 1901 to 32 sales in 1910. Julius Kahn, who in 1913 published a book about major industries and wholesale trade in Munich, even dedicated a whole chapter to Hugo Helbing alone, and mentioned that Helbing had organized and hosted 330 auction sales from when he first established his business until the year of 1912.
Kahn highlighted not only the sale of the Pannwitz collection in 1905, that achieved a turnover of 1,150,000 Marks with an estimated total sum of only 600,000 Marks, he also emphasized the sale of Georg Hirth’s porcelain collection, especially pointing out the pricing effects it had: “Furthermore I would like to recall the auction sale of Dr. G. Hirth’s collection that sparked the public’s interest by presenting precious products of South Germany’s porcelain manufacturers. The prices achieved during this sale became influential for the formation of the prices in the whole market.”
Between 1900 and 1903, Helbing published the magazine Monatsberichte über Kunstwissenschaft und Kunsthandel (Monthly reviews about art history and art trade), that contained exhibition reviews, discussions about new acquisitions and essays concerning current art historical debates, but also provided all kinds of practical information for dealers and collectors.
Between 1912 and until July 1914, the Mitteilungen der Galerie Helbing (Announcements of Galerie Helbing) were released, mainly giving details about in-house auctions, and publishing expert descriptions about the collections on sale.
As a matter of fact, Helbing maintained his own publishing department that produced a series of splendid books and masterpieces, among which were the collection catalogues of the royal art gallery, the Pinakothek, in Munich. For his services to art history and for his support in attaining acquisitions for the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (Bavarian State Painting Collections), Helbing received the title “Kommerzienrat” in 1911, the Royal Merit Order of Saint Michael, and in 1918 the title “Geheimer Kommerzienrat”.
Helbing was also able to realize several auction sales abroad, particularly in Italy and Switzerland. Although it initially seemed as if WWI would cut the “threads that have been spun with foreign countries”, Helbing soon again organized auctions beyond the borders of the German Reich during the post-war years, especially in neighbouring Switzerland.
Although international businesses collapsed, the First World War did hardly bring any losses for the art market whatsoever. Critics like journalist Dr. Kurt Mühsam (1882-1931) observed, that during the war, the auction sales brought “a boom never imagined” with “one sale chasing the other” and the results “outshone everything we have seen before”. In 1916, Helbing opened a branch in Berlin and founded a joint auction house with Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer (1871-1926). Together with the Cassirer company – after Cassirer’s death represented by Grete Ring (1887-1952) and Walther Feilchenfeldt (1984-1953) – Hugo Helbing organized more than 80 auctions until 1932, with sales that saw prominent collections on a price level that could keep up with auction houses in Paris and London.
lready one of the first auctions collaboratively held by Helbing and Cassirer, the sale of the Hugo Schmeil Collection, achieved 1.25 million Marks and earned Berlin the reputation as “art fair”. In 1917, Dr. Richard Kaufmann’s collection was also sold in auction by Helbing and Cassirer, and fetched an incredible sum of 12 million Mark.
The 1920s did also see successful times, and Helbing and Cassirer were able to record their greatest event on the art market with the sale of the art collection of Parisian Joseph Spiridon. The 79 pictures of this collection, mainly by Old-Italian Masters, had been estimated at 6 million Reichsmark in advance, but great interest and lively participation presumably amongst some important American collectors like Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) and Joseph E. Widener (1871-1943), pushed the total result up to 10 million Reichsmark – alone Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait of a young girl realized 750,000 RM.
The outflow of irreplaceable masterpieces that were sold for giant prices and shipped abroad was viewed by critics the with great scepticism. It was said that the precarious economic situation after WWI had led to a “general sell-off of German cultural assets” and that the auctions were no longer about collector’s values but about speculation, as an article in the Münchner Zeitung suggested on the occasion of an auction sale at Helbing’s in February 1923: “Behold, how the audience has changed! […] Neither the State Gallery nor the municipal collections have the money to acquire works of art, or shall we say, they don’t have enough money to compete with the Swiss dealer? […] Nowadays, the dealers dominate the auction hall, and the atmosphere is accordingly.”
It is regrettable that the reforming of the auctioning business occurred at a time when the criticism of the art market was already infiltrated by anti-Semitic hate campaigns. On 8 May 1933, the editor H. W. May wrote to the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior: “Because of the […] continued method of speculation particularly by large and international Jewish companies, the art trade of today is blotched with a large number of unreliable and unworthy elements.”
Especially the Munich art market became an easy target for such anti-Semitic slogans. Although the exact number of Jewish art dealers in Munich is still not clear until today, this map explicitly shows that around 1930 a large number of art shops in Munich was led by Jewish families, amongst which were some of the most important galleries, auction houses and art and antiques traders.
Galerie Helbing at Liebigstraße 21 / Wagmüllerstraße 15.
Most of the Jewish art and antiques dealers were located at Maximiliansplatz and on Brienner Straße.
In July 1933, the “Gleichschaltung” (synchronization) of the German Art and Antiques Dealers’ Society was carried out. The Jewish chairman was discharged and Munich art dealer Adolf Weinmüller (1886-1958), member of NSDAP since 1931, was appointed to serve as chairman. Hereafter, Weinmüller heavily influenced the “new regulations” of the German art trading business. Being the first chairman allowed him to initiate a new bill about auction businesses that was passed on 16 October 1934. According to the new law, every auctioneer had to proof his “reliability” in order to receive an auctioneering license; this proof of reliability was equivalent to being a member of the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture), a privilege that Jewish dealers were refused to obtain per se.
Eventually, in the summer of 1935, the so-called “new regulations” about the Munich art trading business induced by the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of the Fine Arts), requested (by registered mail) that more than 40 Jewish art and antiques dealers as well as antiquarian bookshops should “restructure or dissolve” their businesses within a time limit of only four weeks.
Some companies with higher revenues were granted an extension of time with regard to their business assets. However, the increasing pressure of persecution also forced them to gradually dissolve – as it was the case for Siegfried and Walter Lämmle’s art and antiques shop – or to become “Aryanized” and be sold for example to trustees who were appointed by the authorities.
n the course of their emigration, some dealers signed over their businesses to their “Aryan” employees – Friedrich Heinrich Zinckgraf, for example, continued to run Galerie Heinemann, and Käthe Thäter, who was a long-term employee of Hugo Helbing’s nephew, Fritz Nathan (1895-1972), took over Ludwigs-Galerie, after the Nathan family emigrated to Switzerland in 1936.
Several affected dealers, including Hugo Helbing, wrote detailed letters of protest and mailed them to appropriate authorities. Although the actual “Abwicklung” (transaction) of Helbing’s auction house dragged on until 1941, the business had virtually been paralyzed by the auctioneer’s law from 1934, and was financially ruined.
It was only under the management of the “Aryan” authorized signatory Adolf Alt, that between 1935 and 1937 a few auctions were able to take place at Helbing’s. On 31 December 1935, Fritz Helbing quit his partnership and left the business. On 7 April 1936, Theodor Neustätter passed away, and on 1 December 1936, Ernst Spiegel, who had been the last business partner, withdrew and emigrated to the USA. The compensation payments for the partners meant financial hardship for the company; nevertheless, Helbing tried to maintain the auction house. In order to finance the acquisition of art objects, Helbing had registered mortgages and assigned some art objects to certain banks as security.
Moreover, Helbing tried more than once to sign over his business to his authorized signatory Adolf Alt. On 23 November 1938, this request was rejected by the Government of Upper Bavaria. Hugo Helbing himself never received this notice; during the “Reichspogromnacht” (“Crystal Night”) he was arrested and beaten down. On 30 November 1938, at the age of 75, he died as a result of his severe injuries.
Two days after Helbing’s death, on 2 December 1938, the Reichspropagandaamt (Reich Ministry of Propaganda), district Munich-Upper Bavaria, summoned an “Abwickler” (liquidator) to deal with Galerie Helbing. Max Heiß (1891-1962), “Secretary of the Reich’s Chamber of Fine Arts”, was already present at the reading of the will on 12 December 1938, along with Ludwina Helbing (1884-1962), Helbing’s widow, and the authorized signatory Adolf Alt. Heiß functioned as “provisional manager to the estate’s liability”.
However, the extremely complex “Aryanization” process failed because Max Heiß was not granted an auctioning license. This led to the sale of Galerie Helbing to art dealer Jakob Scheidwimmer in 1941, who did not possess an auctioning license either.
After the war, Hugo Helbing’s lawyer and executor Dr. Hans Raff, initiated several compensation and restitution procedures at the Wiedergutmachungsbehörde München I (Authority of Restitution Munich I), together with Helbing’s widow Ludwina Helbing, and her niece Alwina Hölzermann (1908-1977) who was also Helbing’s foster daughter. However, those negotiations did not lead to any satisfactory results because essential questions concerning purchases and sales performed by Galerie Helbing while being under Heiß’s “trusteeship” could not be clarified due to the lack of comprehensive documentation.
Even though some art works from Hebing’s private collection could obviously be brought to a safe place, a large part, in particular a collection of drawings by Spitzweg and also significant objects from the depot, were among the items annexed by Heiß. The whole depot and a number of items on consignment – including an extensive stock of art works from “non-Aryan” possession that was stored at Liebigstrasse at the time when Max Heiß took over the business – remain missing to this day.
Scheidwimmer, who took all goods from Max Heiß in 1941, provided only vague statements about those objects of art when questioned during the restitution procedures. The lists made available by him also only contained barely sufficient descriptions, thus making it rather difficult or even impossible to determine and identify the lost objects to this day. Finally, Ludwina Helbing and the community of heirs received a compensation of capital which could hardly offset the loss of Galerie Helbing.
In addition to his branch in Berlin, in 1919 Hugo Helbing had established another branch office of his successful auction house in Frankfurt am Main. This branch was located in rented spaces on the ground floor of a mansion on Bockenheimer Landstrasse 8, that had been built by Consul General Charles Oppenheimer (1836-1900) in 1883. In 1917, the villa had been acquired by Max von Goldschmidt-Rothschild (1843-1940). Helbing employed art historian Dr. Arthur Kauffmann (1887-1983) as his authorized signatory who soon became the office’s director and was promoted to equal partnership in 1923. When Helbing was forced to withdraw from his Munich gallery, he likewise gave up his branch in Frankfurt in October 1923, thus making Kauffmann the sole proprietor.
In spring 1935, all art dealers in Frankfurt had to submit an application at the municipal administration in order to renew their auctioneering licence. Due to Kauffmann’s Jewish ancestry, he was denied such a licence. The Frankfurt tourist office took this as a cause to send a complaint to the Lord Mayor on 6 May 1935: “Art auctions in Frankfurt am Main have a worldwide reputation – especially those at Helbing’s. Every year, they used to draw art traders from all over the world to Frankfurt a. M., thereby contributing to the city’s economic stimulation.” Kauffmann was indeed still able to hold seven auctions until 1937. In 1938, he and his family emigrated to London and never returned. The Frankfurt branch of Helbing’s auction house was not “Aryanized” after Kauffmann was gone, however, the premises were “utilized”:
Auction catalogues are an underestimated type of sources. However, their special source value becomes immediately apparent when it comes to objects in private collections. If those art objects change hands directly or by the agency of an art dealer, thus entering into a new private possession, a transaction like this usually does not leave any traces that could be researched. On the other hand, public sales and auctions allow objects from private possessions to be properly documented – sometimes for the first time ever. The accordance between these three coordinates – what, where, when – frequently proofs to be the first indication during research.
But the mere fact of being registered in a catalogue or a possible identification by means of a lot number still does not give any clue about the course of an auction (such as the hammer price), about the consignor or the purchaser. Apart from recorded statements by contemporary witnesses or selective articles in the specialized press, only annotated catalogues can supply specific information that is of crucial significance in answering classic art historical research questions (catalogue of works, attributions, etc.) and to support provenance research.
Sources and Acknowledgement
Curators: Meike Hopp, Melida Steinke
Photography and film recordings: Johannes Griebel, Stephan Klingen, Florian Schröter, Susanne Spieler
Poster design: Adrian Siedentopf
Audio recording: Christian Fuhrmeister
Translation: Dajana Rujbr-Fischer
Special Thanks to: Gertrud Rudigier, Johannes Nathan, Ulrich Pfisterer, the Association of Friends of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte e.V. CONIVNCTA FLORESCIT, Konrad & Rahel Feilchenfeldt, Thomas Rosemann (Kunsthaus Zürich, Library), Elisabeth Stürmer (Stadtmuseum München, Bildarchiv / Image Archives), Robert Bierschneider (Bavarian State Archives in Munich), Andreas Heusler and Anton Löffelmeier (Stadtarchiv München / Munich City Archives), Harald Müller and Richard Winkler (Bayerisches Wirtschaftsarchiv der IHK München / Bavarian Industry Archives of Munich’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce), Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt am Main, Rüdiger Hoyer, Mathias Becker, Susanne Spieler, Florian Schröter, Christian Fuhrmeister, Stephan Klingen, Johannes Griebel, Matteo Burioni, Adrian Siedentopf, Vanessa Voigt, Wolfgang Burgmair, Rolf Hofmann, Julie Rothschild, Alwy Becker-Hölzermann, and to everybody who supported the realization of this exhibition.
Related Literature (i.a.):
Karl Wilhelm: Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte des Kunstauktionswesens in Deutschland vom 18. Jahrhundert bis 1945, univ. thesis, Munich 1989
Wolfram Selig: „Arisierung“ in München, die Vernichtung jüdischer Existenz 1937–1939, Berlin 2004
Meike Hopp: Kunsthandel im Nationalsozialismus: Adolf Weinmüller in München und Wien, 2012
Meike Hopp: Kunsthandel 1938, in: 1938. Kunst, Künstler, Politik, ed. by Eva Atlan, Raphael Gross, Julia Voss, Göttingen 2013, pp. 151-175
Meike Hopp and Melida Steinke: „Galerie Helbing“ – Auktionen für die Welt, in: Provenienz & Forschung, ed. by Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation) Magdeburg, issue 1/2016, pp. 54-61
Source of Exhibition Text above:
English version: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/VwKyXPJHKm3FJA?hl=en - the text is illustrated with many images and pages from catalogues and other sources
German version: https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/VwKyXPJHKm3FJA?hl=de
Like the photographic archive of Munich art dealer Julius Böhler (Link), that could be acquired by the ZI in 2015 with the support of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (German Research Foundation), the annotated Helbing catalogues shall be digitized in medium term, this being a suitable way of making them accessible for research. The planned utilization of information found in the Helbing catalogues does not only require the search for and the comparison with further annotated specimen throughout the world in addition to a constructive coordination with the University Library of Heidelberg. The project will also need continuous financial support considering the enormous amount of work, engaging and maintaining of personnel and technical resources, as well as programming of a research orientated interface.