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Brummer Galleries

Paris and New York, 1909–1964

The three Hungarian brothers Joseph, Imre, and Ernest Brummer operated galleries in Paris from 1909 to 1940, and in New York from 1914 until 1964. They came to prominence during the interwar years as a prosperous and influential firm specializing in ancient and medieval art. Yet the eldest brother and founder of the gallery, Joseph. was responsible for some of the earliest exhibitions of contemporary art held in New York.

Originally a practicing sculptor, Joseph came to Paris from Hungary briefly in 1904 to pursue his training after studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. He returned two years later to apprentice at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and the Académie Colarossi, often offsetting tuition by serving as a model. Joseph also cut marble for Auguste Rodin and in 1908 he joined Henri Matisse’s newly founded Académie, a major hub for international students in Paris.

By the fall of 1909, Joseph had launched into a new career, partnering up with the Maison Delhomme to sell antiquities at 67 Boulevard Raspail. In November 1910 he set up his own gallery, Maison Joseph Brummer, at the same address and a couple of months later moved to 3 Boulevard Raspail, renaming the gallery Brummer: Objets d’art anciens. His younger brothers Imre (1889–1928) and Ernest (1891–1964), soon joined him and the gallery was renamed Brummer Frères: Curiosités. They worked together in Paris from January 1912 to July 1914, while Ernest studied art history and archaeology at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne.

In 1914, Joseph and Imre immigrated to New York. They opened a gallery that moved to various locations along East 57th Street over the years, and worked together until Imre’s premature death in 1928.

With the onset of World War I, the property of all Austro-Hungarian and German enemy nationals in France was sequestered, including that of Brummer Frères. After the war, Ernest reopened his business as E. Brummer: Objets d’art archéologiques. The New York and Paris galleries worked closely together in the interwar years, until the beginning of World War II when Ernest fled occupied Paris and joined Joseph in New York.

The Brummer ledgers dating back to 1909 list a vast array of artworks hailing from China, Japan, Persia, Oceania, and Africa, not to mention Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquities, medieval art, and sundry prints and canvases. Along with antiquities, the Brummers presented avant-garde art, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau (who painted Joseph’s portrait in 1909, now at the National Gallery, London) and sculptures by Joseph Csaky and Jacques Lipchitz.

While the New York gallery was immensely successful owing to dazzling displays of rare finds ranging from Egyptian urns to Gothic statuary, Joseph continued to organize exhibitions of contemporary art that was shipped from Paris at great expense and to which he devoted his best room. His New York venue featured many exhibitions of French painters, such as, André Derain, Othon Friesz, Rousseau, Jacques Villon, and Maurice de Vlaminck, as well as the Americans Frank Burty Haviland, Thomas Eakins and Walter Pach.

Despite shipping hassles, Joseph also showcased sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, Charles Despiau, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Gaston Lachaise, Henri Laurens, Aristide Maillol, Matisse, and Ossip Zadkine, among others. His best-known exhibition is arguably a Brancusi show in 1926, on the occasion of which the shipping of Bird in Space (1926; Seattle Art Museum) caused an uproar when U.S. customs officials denied that it was an original work of art (which would have allowed it to enter the country duty-free), instead classifying it as a regular commodity and subjecting it to an import tax of 40 percent of its commercial value. The ensuing appeal in court, which enlisted the testimonies of artists Marcel Duchamp and Jacob Epstein, photographer Edward Steichen, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, critic Henry McBride, editor Forbes Watson, and Brooklyn Museum director William Henry Fox, resulted in a much-publicized debate over what constituted a work of art, at a time when a sculpture was defined as a “reproduction by carving or casting, imitation of natural objects.” The decision was eventually reversed in 1928.

After Joseph’s death, The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired hundreds of artworks from his estate, which are held in the departments of Medieval Art, Drawings and Prints, Ancient Near Eastern Art, and Greek and Roman Art. Ernest remained at the helm of the New York gallery until his death in 1964.

Over the years Ernest, then his widow Ella Baché-Brummer, organized several auctions of the brothers’ collections and gallery stock, in April–June 1949, December 1956, November 1964, June 1978, and October 1979. Today works from their holdings can be found around the world. Most notable is a significant group of medieval works from Ernest’s collection that are the foundation of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The gallery records, which were maintained by Ernest, were given to the Met by Ella in 1980.

For more information, see:

Biro, Yaëlle. “African arts between curios, antiquities, and avant-garde at the Maison Brummer, Paris (1908–1914).” Journal of Art Historiography 12 (June 2015): 1–15. Brennan, Christine E. “The Brummer Gallery and the business of art.” Journal of the History of Collections 27, no. 3 (2015): 455–68.

Forsyth, William H. “The Brummer Brothers: An Instinct for the Beautiful.” Art News 73, no. 8 (October 1974): 106–7.

Passuth, Krisztina. “Plus qu’un marchand, une éminence grise: Joseph Brummer, ami d’Henri Rousseau,” In Tribus contemporaines: explorations exotiques des artistes d’occident, Actes du colloque de Dijon, May 5–6, 2000, edited by Valérie Dupont, 43–64. Dijon: Editions universitaires de Dijon, 2002.

The Brummer records are held by The Cloisters Library and Archives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digitized copies are available through the museum's Thomas J. Watson Library.

How to cite this entry:
Hollevoet-Force, Christel, "Brummer Galleries," The Modern Art Index Project (March 2018), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.