Hugo Perls

Rybnik, Poland (formerly Prussia), 1886–New York, 1977

The existence of the Perls galleries spanned almost a century through various iterations in Berlin, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. Their owners—Hugo, Käte, and sons Frank and Klaus—played a major role in the dissemination of European modernism and helped shape countless collections. Their own pioneering holdings, started when names like Pablo Picasso barely rang a bell, remain legendary to this day.

Magistrate, collector, art dealer, and philosopher Hugo Perls studied law, philosophy, and the history of art in Freiburg and Berlin before working for the German Ministry of the Interior and the Foreign Ministry until 1918.

In 1910 he married Käte Kolker from Breslau, neice of the modern art collector Hugo Kolker. The latter's daughter, Else, and her husband the art historian Curt Glaser of Berlin, were cousins of Käte and Hugo, respectively. The couple and their two eldest sons soon lived in a house commissioned from the young architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at Hermannstrasse 14–16 in Berlin-Zehlendorf, with dining room murals by Max Pechstein. It was there that they built a substantial art collection. In the course of their regular trips to Paris from 1910 on, Hugo and Käte acquired paintings by such artists as Paul Cézanne, Honoré Daumier, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, from Paul Durand-Ruel and other dealers. They discovered Picasso through Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and bought their first painting by the artist in 1912. A year later, in Moss, Norway, Edvard Munch painted three portraits of the red-haired Käte and two portraits of the couple. During World War I, facing financial troubles, they sold their house and collection and subsequently lived at Margaretenstrasse 8.

Hugo started dealing in 1919. From 1923 until September 18, 1931, he and his wife owned Kunsthandlung Hugo Perls, at Bellevuestrasse 10, which specialized in Old Masters, German painting, French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Their stock included numerous Blue and Rose Period paintings by Picasso, as well as other works acquired in the 1920s from dealer Ambroise Vollard. Several paintings that passed through the gallery are today in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, including Cézanne’s Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (1866) and House with the Cracked Walls (1892–94); Degas’s Three Jockeys (ca. 1900); and Picasso’s La Coiffure (1906).

In 1930–31 Hugo and Käte liquidated their gallery stock, sold a large part of their private collection, divorced on October 10, 1931, and moved to Paris. Hugo retired from art dealing and dedicated his time to the study of Plato and Kant. In 1941 he fled Nazi-occupied France via Cuba, embarking on the S.S. Magallanes on September 18 and arriving in Havana on October 7. From there he departed for New York on the S.S. Shawnee on December 12, 1941. Soon after he arrived, Hugo married the Swedish writer Eugénie Söderberg. After her passing, he married Monica Schall.

During the Occupation, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg seized Hugo’s possessions from his French residence and storage facility (44, rue Laffitte, and 14, Place Dauphine), for which he filed claims after the war. In postwar New York, Hugo was known primarily as a writer, although he continued to sell art privately. He published his memoirs, Warum ist Kamilla schön? Von Kunst, Künstlern und Kunsthandel in 1962.

For more information, see:

Huber, Hans Dieter, et al. Munch, Edvard: Käte und Hugo Perls, 1913. Chemnitz: KulturStiftung der Länder, 2003.

Perls, Hugo. Warum ist Kamilla schön? Von Kunst, Künstlern und Kunsthandel. Munich: Paul List, 1962.

The Hugo Perls Collection 1936–1976 is housed at the Leo Baeck Institute, Center for Jewish History. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) card inventory of looted art contains information on Perls’s works. For more information, see the Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume. The National Archives and Records Administration’s Holocaust Collection maintains records on cultural property claims.

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