Time traveler

At Christie's auction house, G. Max Bernheimer '82 straddles ancient, modern worlds
May 5, 2014

In the winter of his junior year, G. Max Bernheimer was walking to class from his apartment on Loudon Street and stepped into a puddle. This was no rain-fed pool — this was a Worcester puddle in all its terrible glory, a deep ugly gash filled with melted snow and chunks of ice. Bernheimer sank to his shin in the frigid mess.

He sat fuming through class and then, water still squishing in his shoe, he marched into history professor Paul Burke's office. "You gotta get me out of here," he pleaded. To which Burke replied, "Don't worry, I know what to do."

The answer was a semester in the fall of his senior year spent at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome.

"As much as attending Clark was a life-changing event, the semester abroad was the icing on the cake," Bernheimer says. "It was total immersion — living in Rome and studying art history and archaeology. We traveled all over the city and into southern and central Italy. I saw so much. I wasn't looking at slides and books anymore; I was looking at the real thing."

The ancient realm continues to be a very real thing for Bernheimer, who today is the international head of antiquities for Christie's, one of the world's oldest and largest auction houses. Bernheimer jets all over the world to meet with collectors of objects from the earliest days of recorded history in Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Near East, working to bring these treasures to sale at Christie's in New York and London. Other sales are held in venues across the globe when the opportunity arises.

"My job is to source the material and travel to meet with private clients, dealers, museum curators. These are long-term relationships — rarely do you meet someone on a Thursday and sell their collection on a Friday. Sometimes it's fifteen years before someone is ready to sell."

Cultivating relationships is only part of the job. Bernheimer authenticates and appraises pieces, keeps up with all the market trends, stays current with the science behind authentication, and processes the materials once the client is prepared to sell. A sale is held in New York every six months, which means items have to be photographed and catalogued, and then Bernheimer shifts from acquisitions mode to "selling the sale."

The numbers are impressive. This past December, Christie's sold a pair of large Roman bronze sculptures for $3.5 million. "Bronze sculpture of scale rarely survives, so to have a pair like this was off the charts," Bernheimer says.

His most expensive sale, however, occurred in December 2010, when a Cycladic marble figure of a goddess, dating to about 2500 B.C., fetched $16.8 million. "This was the best of the best," he says. "Beautifully carved, well preserved, and great old provenance. It was just like a perfect storm of an object, and the market responded accordingly."

Bernheimer uses the term "provenance" often in conversation, and in his field the word is gospel. Provenance refers to an object's historical origin and pathway to its current owner. Establishing a piece's provenance ensures validity and roots out any illegal or unethical influences in its acquisition.

"We must have substantive paperwork to document provenance, otherwise we walk," he says. "Everything we do is so visible and in the public eye, so we have to be extra careful. We really want to be sure the products we offer are free and clear of difficulties.

"Of course, it's also fun to do the research. Sometimes people don't know what they have, and we're able to make discoveries about provenance. Other times the discoveries happen by accident — you're looking for one thing and find another."

The family business

Max Bernheimer's personal provenance reveals a passion for antiquities that is entwined with the family DNA. He is the fifth generation of Bernheimers to be active in the art-dealing world, dating back to his great-great-grandfather Lehmann Bernheimer, who as an industrious young man left his small German town to sell shoelaces on the streets of Munich. With the money he earned he opened a textiles business in 1864, traveling to Turkey and other countries to buy his goods. He eventually came to specialize in oriental carpets, and later expanded his inventory to include Renaissance furniture and antiques, such as tapestries, sculpture and ceramics.

By 1900, Haus Bernheimer had grown to become arguably the most important art business in Germany, purveyors to the Court of Bavaria, and counted among its clients members of the European aristocracy and American magnates. Lehmann's three sons eventually became partners in the firm, which remained successful until war descended on Europe. The company building, which had stood since 1889, was damaged in 1938 during Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Germany that left the streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. The Nazis seized the Bernheimer building, the roof and tower of which were destroyed during the war.

In 1939 Lehmann's three sons were taken away to the Dachau concentration camp.

"Fortunately, at the time, Dachau was a work camp, not a death camp, and they were eventually able to get out," Bernheimer says. Some family members fled to Venezuela, others left for Cuba. Max's grandfather, Paul, one of Lehmann's sons, and his wife Louise made their way to Norton, Mass., where they opened a small antiques shop. (The Venezuelan branch of the Bernheimers returned to Germany after the war to reestablish the family business, which thrives today as Bernheimer Fine Old Masters.)

In 1963 Paul and Louise brought Bernheimer's Antique Arts to Harvard Square in Cambridge, an enclave of commerce and culture — both high and low — in the shadow of the nation's most renowned university.

Bernheimer's was not your typical antiques shop. In fact, Paul and Louise insisted the word "antiques" didn't do their eclectic offerings justice.

"The shop was very museum-like, though on a more modest scale," Bernheimer says. "They sold antiquities; they sold Chinese things, Japanese things, European works of art, pre-Columbian things, Native American objects, African art. It had to stay modest because local people generally won't spend a large sum nearer to home. The big collectors typically buy when they're traveling. So if they come to New York, or they're in London or Paris, they buy something major. But they won't necessarily buy it locally.

"That being said, the shop had a huge following, and people loved my grandfather. He was this gracious, white-haired old gentleman with a thick accent — think Einstein. If someone came in to look around — even somebody he'd never met — and showed interest in an object he would put it in their hands and say, "Take it. Pay as you can, in installments if you have to. Do what you need to do. But I want you to have it."

Lord of the ring

Max grew up about an hour away in Mansfield, Mass., but when he was old enough to drive he would visit his grandparents' gallery to dust the cases and do other odd jobs. His education in antiquities had begun.

"The physical handling of the objects, even without knowing what I was looking at, really contributed to training my eye. I started to learn from that tactile interaction — the texture, the weight, the smell of all these things. That was my grandparents' doing. They planted the seed." To this day, Max wears a special ring, given to him by his grandmother when he was a teenager, which features a Roman stone engraved with a lion and mounted in a gold setting. The stone dates to the mid-1st century B.C.

"I can remember being bored in high school, sitting there looking at this stone on my finger and thinking, ‘Who owned this? How was it made? Why was it made?' The ring inspired me."

Despite the artistic influences in his life, Bernheimer wasn't sure what he would study in college, or even where he would attend. The second question was answered the day he visited Clark in the early spring. The sun was shining, Frisbees were flying and the buds were poking out on the trees.

"The campus was alive in sort of a textbook way," he recalls. "I thought, ‘This is where I want to go.'"

Bernheimer's first class was Professor Burke's Introduction to Greek Art and Archaeology. He was instantly smitten.

"I just had no idea someone could know so much about the remote past," he says. "[Burke] brought this history to life, and I fell in love with it; I couldn't get enough." From that point on he enrolled in every ancient history and art class that was offered, and when those options were exhausted he did independent study "until there was nothing more for me to take."

He graduated with a history degree in 1982 and had planned to take a break before launching the next phase of his life. But two days before commencement his grandfather had called. "He said, ‘I know you wanted to take some time off, but I have an auction I need to go to. Can you start on Monday?"

And so he did. Bernheimer ran the family shop for ten years as his grandparents eased into retirement. He also earned a master's degree at Harvard, writing his thesis on ancient gems, a topic that had intrigued him ever since his grandmother had given him the Roman ring.

His migration to Christie's was unplanned yet fortuitous. As Bernheimer, an avid Red Sox fan, puts it: "I got drafted from Double A to the major leagues."

Though the art market was ablaze in the 1980s and early '90s, Christie's had a dedicated antiquities department only in its London office, not in New York. To establish a beachhead on both sides of the Atlantic, the firm began searching for someone with that rare combination of market experience and academic training. In the course of the hunt, Christie's consulted with Cornelius Vermeule III, the curator of classical art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and a frequent visitor to Bernheimer Antique Arts. Vermeule called Max and asked Max's permission to recommend him for the job.

"I said it was okay, and I hung up the phone and literally couldn't breathe," Bernheimer recalls. "I walked out the door without explanation and thought, ‘What have I done?'"

Max was offered the job, and approached his grandparents with the news.

"I told them I have this amazing opportunity, but that I didn't want to destroy their legacy," he says. "They asked, ‘Is this something you really want do?' I said, ‘Yes.' And they said, ‘Then do it.' To get that kind of green light from my grandparents just made it so much easier."

Traveling the high road

Bernheimer closed the family shop to join Christie's in 1992. He is based in New York, but spends much of his life in the air, traveling frequently to Europe and throughout the United States. He will also fly to Japan, Australia, Canada and any other corner of the globe where a collector is pondering the sale of a major piece.

Some of the trips are spontaneous. In December an art owner outside Denver sent Christie's photographs of an intriguing item. Bernheimer was on the first plane to Colorado.

"This is a very competitive business," he acknowledges. "The first one to establish a relationship with a client, the first one to tell them what they have, is the one who is going to get the business."

The Denver piece was a Roman sculpture that had been considered lost for the last 50 years, depicting the gods Eros and Psyche in an embrace. Bernheimer recognized it from a drawing he'd seen in a book ("Art historians generally have a pretty good visual memory," he notes) and through his research he was able to establish a remarkable provenance that included past ownership by, among others, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and legendary English collector Thomas Hope. Christie's had already sold the sculpture twice before, the first time in 1807 as part of the collection of Sir William Hamilton.

"In the literature the piece was only shown as a drawing and ‘location unknown,'" Bernheimer says. "We found it, and for the third time in its lifetime, Christie's will have sold it." The sculpture will be on the block for Christie's June sale, where Bernheimer estimates it will net somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000.

And people will pay. His many years in the business have taught Bernheimer that the art market tends to remain bullish even in a down economy when folks may be looking to unload some or all of their collections.

"Right now we've been enjoying quite a robust market. After the crash of Lehman Bros. there was a little bit of a dip, but since then business has been booming because people with money may be nervous about other kinds of investments, so they're putting money into art. The level of interest in antiquities is huge, but it pales in comparison to post-war and contemporary art, which people are clamoring for."

Sometimes a client will own a damaged object, and may be wavering on whether to have it restored. In most cases Bernheimer advocates leaving it untouched since a poor restoration can hurt the value. But if the damage is visually disruptive, a little work can be a good thing. Bernheimer recalls being presented with a Greek marble head that had a missing nose. "I advised the owner to have a new nose made, and the second it came back from the conservator's workshop you could appreciate how beautiful the face was because the eye no longer focused on the cavity in the center." The piece sold for double its low estimate.

Christie's auctions proceed largely in the same fashion as they did in the mid-1700s, when founder James Christie presented London society the opportunity to purchase fine art. More than two centuries later there remains one intractable rule: the high bidder wins. Of course, many of the bids are submitted by phone or online, which ensures anonymity. "The tools are getting better," Bernheimer says, "but I would caution that if someone really wants something it's best to leave a written bid, because if the phone line goes down or the computer crashes just as your lot comes up we can't reopen it."

When the Arab Spring uprisings unfolded across parts of the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, reports emerged that Egyptian museums were being looted. Bloomberg News in New York brought Bernheimer on the air to comment about the threats to some of the world's oldest, most valuable antiquities. Today, he says, much of the material from those museums has been recovered and missing pieces have not appeared on the auction market.

"Part of the reason for that is you'd have to be absolutely crazy to offer something that is documented at public auction, especially one as visible as Christie's, because everyone is going to recognize it. Nobody would be that silly," Bernheimer says. However, the nagging fear is that some of the precious metal will be melted down and left untraceable. "Those are the pieces we worry about most."

Three decades ago, Max Bernheimer could not have imagined the career path that would lead him from the classrooms of Clark to points around the globe; from the gallery of his family's antiques shop to the homes and museums boasting some of the ancient world's most storied treasures.

Bernheimer has seen so much; held history in his hands. But does he have a Holy Grail, a white whale — the one object that obsesses him?

"No," he says. "It's about what's coming next: what is that great object we're going to see that's so gorgeous and so wonderful? That's the fun of it. That's what drives me."

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, spring 2013.