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Klaus Perls

Berlin, 1912–Mount Kisco, N.Y. , 2008

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.

Klaus’s parents owned a famed collection of modern art in Berlin before World War I and successively managed two galleries: Kunsthandlung Hugo Perls in Berlin, active from 1923 to 1931, and, after the couple’s divorce in 1931, Galerie Käte Perls in Paris, active from 1932 to 1940.

Before apprenticing in his mother’s gallery, Klaus studied in Hamburg, Munich, and Basel, then at the Louvre in Paris, where he completed his PhD on the French Renaissance painter Jean Fouquet in 1933. As the Great Depression led to a decline in the Parisian art market throughout the 1930s, Käte and her eldest sons Frank and Klaus considered their options. In 1935, at the age of 23, Klaus immigrated to New York, arriving from Antwerp on the S.S. Westernland on October 21. By his own account, he started out as a messenger boy in a brokerage house on Wall Street and peddled his mother’s artworks for a few hundred dollars. Two years later, Klaus returned to Paris—presumably to lay out plans for a future gallery in New York—then embarked from Le Havre on the S.S. Manhattan on July 29, 1937, arriving in New York on August 5.

Shortly thereafter, his brother Frank joined him in New York and together they opened the Perls Galleries at 32 East 58 Street., The plural “Perls Galleries” encompassed both the Paris and New York operations, and the letterhead listed Käte Perls, Franz R. Perls, and Klaus G. Perls. Between 1937 and 1939, Käte sent her Paris exhibitions to New York, including a series of School of Paris group shows titled “For the Young Collector,” “Modern Primitives of Paris,” and “Picasso before 1910.” While they had very little competition, there was not much demand for European avant-garde art at the time, with the notable exception of the industrialist and collector Walter P. Chrysler Jr., who was a client of the gallery.

In 1939, two years after opening the New York gallery, the brothers parted ways: Klaus and his new wife Amelia (Dolly) Blumenthal continued to operate the gallery in New York, while Frank opened his own space at 8634 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Klaus published his Fouquet dissertation in 1940, and a monograph on Maurice de Vlaminck the following year. In 1942 he mounted an exhibition on Giorgio de Chirico.

Meanwhile Klaus’s father, Hugo, fled occupied France via Cuba and arrived in New York in December 1941. Käte was imprisoned in a series of French internment camps, but managed to reach New York in 1943, only to die of cancer two years later. After his mother’s premature death and the loss of the aryanized Paris gallery, Klaus maintained the name Perls Galleries.

In 1954, Klaus and Dolly moved the gallery to 1016 Madison at 78 Street and lived above the space with a sizeable collection of modern paintings and sculptures. Starting in the 1970s, the Perls also collected artworks from Benin.

The New York gallery was active for sixty years, from 1937 to 1997. In addition to artists from the School of Paris, Klaus dealt in the work of Latin American and North American artists. He represented Calder from 1954 until his death in 1976, and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko from 1957 until his death in 1964. In 1962, Klaus was one of the founding members of the Art Dealers Association of America, and its third president (1966–68), after Alexander Rosenberg and Pierre Matisse. He wrote catalogues raisonnés for Jules Pascin (1984) and Chaim Soutine (1993).

Klaus and Dolly gave 153 pieces of African royal art from Benin to the Met in 1991 and another thirteen works in 1996. Five years later they donated thirteen additional works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—one of the most spectacular gifts of twentieth-century art the museum had ever received, including the first Analytic Cubist paintings by Picasso and Georges Braque to enter the Met’s collection. The Perls gift includes six paintings by Picasso: Woman in an Armchair (1910); Pipe Rack and Still Life on a Table (1912), Harlequin (1927), The Dreamer (1932), Woman Asleep at a Table (1936), and Dora Maar in an Armchair (1939). It also includes Braque’s oval-shaped canvas Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table (1910), Fernand Leger’s The Bicyclist (1951), Amedeo Modigliani’s stone sculpture Head of a Woman (1912) and his striking Reclining Nude (1917), Jules Pascin’s Portrait of Pierre McOrlan (1924), and Chaim Soutine’s Still Life with Rayfish (1924) and View of Cagnes (1924–25). Klaus and Dolly Perls were elected Benefactors of the Met in 1991, and Klaus was elected Honorary Trustee in November of the same year.

For more information, see:

Ezra, Kate. Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection. Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; H. N. Abrams, 1992.

Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat. Edited by Gary Tinterow. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.

Perls Galleries records related to Klaus Perls’s tenure from 1937 to 1997, as well as an oral history interview with the dealer, are held at the Archives of American Art.

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