Eberhard Kornfeld, Art Dealer, Collector and Historian, Is Dead at 99

New York Times 11 May 2024
By Jonathan Kandell

Ensconced in a 15th-century Swiss manor house, he became an expert on the old masters and later tangled with heirs of a collector killed by the Nazis.

Eberhard Kornfeld in his Galerie Kornfeld in 1993. A Vienna museum official called him “a seminal and unique figure in the art world.”

For more than a half-century, Eberhard Kornfeld, a renowned art auctioneer, dealer, collector and scholar, presided over an annual June auction under a tent adjoining his Galerie Kornfeld, which made its home in a grand 19th-century mansion in Bern, Switzerland.

A two-day event, the auction was a high point of the Swiss social season, at which Mr. Kornfeld — Ebi to almost everyone who knew him — typically sold millions of dollars of works by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt van Rijn, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and other old masters, along with those by more recent artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.

Besides being an astute salesman, Mr. Kornfeld was a noted art historian and the author of heralded monographs, including a definitive 1979 study of the German Expressionist Kirchner.

“That’s what makes him such a seminal and unique figure in the art world,” Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the director general of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, said in an interview in 2010. Mr. Kornfeld’s passion for Kirchner led him to purchase the artist’s home in Davos, Switzerland, and restore it as a museum containing a vast archive of Kirchner letters and works.

Mr. Kornfeld enjoyed intense relationships with living artists, whose works he collected and sold. His Swiss compatriot, Alberto Giacometti, drew multiple portraits of Mr. Kornfeld and pleaded with him to write a comprehensive monograph about him. Mr. Kornfeld finally did so as a co-author in 2010, long after the artist died.

Mr. Kornfeld himself died on April 13, 2023, at his home, on the outskirts of Bern, the country’s capital. His gallery announced his death soon after, but it was not widely reported and only recently came to the attention of The New York Times. He was 99.

Mr. Kornfeld in his office in Bern, Switzerland, in 2010. The painting on the easel is a self-portrait by Ludwig Kirchner, an oil on canvas from the mid-1920s. On the wall behind him is “Coming Over,” painted in the mid-1970s by Sam Francis, who lived and worked at Mr. Kornfeld’s home for months at time.

Because of Mr. Kornfeld’s long friendship with Chagall, the estate of the artist’s daughter, Ida Chagall, turned over 42 Chagall paintings to Galerie Kornfeld for sale in 2006 instead of offering them to larger auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. And the American painter Sam Francis lived and worked at Mr. Kornfeld’s home for months at a time.

Mr. Kornfeld was also a defendant in decades-long litigation brought by the heirs of a popular Viennese cabaret performer, Fritz Grünbaum, whose large collection was inventoried by Nazi agents in 1938 after he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died three years later. It remains unclear how many of the more than 400 artworks in the collection were confiscated by the Nazis and how many might have been spirited out of Austria to Grünbaum relatives in Belgium and Britain.

In 1956, 63 works by the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele from the Grünbaum collection were put up for sale by Mr. Kornfeld. In the ensuing legal battles over the provenance of those works, Mr. Kornfeld in 1998 produced what he said were letters and receipts documenting his purchase of the Schiele works from Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl, a sister-in-law of Mr. Grünbaum’s who had managed to escape the Nazis.

She died two decades before Mr. Kornfeld disclosed his documentation for the Schieles. The Grünbaum heirs insisted that the documents were forgeries and that the artworks had been looted by the Nazis.

In 2011, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York reached a judgment on one of the works in question — Schiele’s 1917 drawing “Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg (Torso)” — that exonerated Mr. Kornfeld and declared that he had exercised sufficient due diligence in purchasing the work.

But in 2018, a New York State Supreme Court judge, Charles J. Ramos, ruled in favor of the Grünbaum heirs in a separate case involving two other Schiele works that had been sold by Mr. Kornfeld and ended up with a London dealer, Richard Nagy. The judge cast doubt on Mr. Kornfeld’s documentation and ordered Mr. Nagy to turn over to the heirs the two paintings in question: Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) and “Woman Hiding Her Face” (1912). In July 2019, a New York appellate court upheld Judge Ramos’s ruling.

The ruling did not mark the end of litigation involving the Grünbaum collection. Several dealers who own many of the Schieles sold by Mr. Kornfeld insisted that the works were not stolen, and they received the support of the German Lost Art Foundation. The foundation, which operates a vast database of art likely to have been stolen by the Nazis, has been applauded for aiding the return of works looted from Holocaust victims to their rightful owners.

A Schiele can go for as much as $40 million, the price paid at auction in 2011 for the 1914 painting Houses With Colorful Laundry (Suburb II).” (That painting, an urban landscape, is not among the works linked to Mr. Kornfeld.)

Over the last dozen years the Grünbaum heirs have recovered a number of Schiele works sold by Mr. Kornfeld to museums, art dealers and collectors.

Mr. Kornfeld was born on Sept. 23, 1923, in Basel. He developed an eye for art under his father, a successful interior designer.

He was an adolescent when he began his long career as a collector by gathering Neolithic stone tools and fragments of ancient Roman bronze artifacts found at archaeological digs near Basel. He studied archaeology at the University of Basel but dropped out to serve in the Swiss Army during World War II as neutral Switzerland girded for a possible German invasion, which never occurred.

After the war, Mr. Kornfeld became an apprentice at Gutekunst und Klipstein, a well-known German auction house that had relocated to Bern. Because it had a strong reputation in old masters, he spent summers studying in the Renaissance and Baroque drawings and prints departments at museums in Amsterdam, Paris and London. “I looked at the Rembrandt etchings until I knew every detail about them,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2010.

Mr. Kornfeld, center, during an auction of fine art at Sotheby’s in London in 1977.

He was soon promoted to junior partner, and when the owner, August Klipstein, died in 1951, Mr. Kornfeld took over the auction house and eventually bought out the Klipstein heirs.

All the while he built a reputation for an almost unerring eye in his drawing and print specialties, allowing him to charge premium prices. “Whatever passes through his hands is almost never questioned,” said Paul Hahnloser, a Zurich collector.

Besides overseeing his auction house and gallery, Mr. Kornfeld helped museums in Switzerland and other European countries stage major shows of drawings and etchings.

The Kornfeld residence, a former 15th-century manor house with a splendid view of the Alps, was a veritable museum. Its three floors were cluttered with works by Francis, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. Etchings and engravings by Rembrandt and Dürer and drawings by Kirchner and Klee filled drawers. Stacked against the walls by the dozen were framed Giacomettis and Schieles that Mr. Kornfeld often contemplated, one after another, while sitting in his favorite easy chair.

In 2006, he donated his entire Rembrandt collection, including more than 100 etchings, to the Kunstmuseum Basel, shortly after it staged an exhibition of the works. But he continued to buy more Rembrandt etchings.

From a drawer in his house, he retrieved for a visitor in 2010 several of those recent acquisitions, including “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” Christ Preaching” (better known as “The Hundred Guilder Print”) and Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves” (also known as The Three Crosses”).

“I just didn’t want to live without them,” he explained.
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