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Historical Note | A Finding Aid to the Perls Galleries records, 1937-1997

Perls Galleries records, 1937-1997

Historical Note

Klaus Perls (b. 1912, d. 2008) formally opened Perls Galleries in New York in 1937, and ran it with his wife Amelia until its closing in 1997. The gallery dealt in contemporary French artists of the School of Paris, such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, but also acted as the primary representative of Alexander Calder beginning in 1954. In the 1970s Mr. Perls developed an interest in art from Benin and built an important collection of African sculpture, some of which was later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Amelia Perls died in 2002, and Klaus Perls died in 2008.
Klaus Perls was born in 1912 in Berlin in a house Mies van der Rohe designed for his parents, who owned an art gallery specializing in Impressionists, post-Impressionists, Old Master paintings, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and African sculpture. Perls studied Art History in Hamburg and Munich but completed his PhD in Basel, Switzerland in 1933 after the Nazi government stopped awarding degrees to Jews. His dissertation covered the complete works of 15th-century French painter Jean Fouquet.
Before moving to New York in 1935, Perls worked for his mother, Kaethe Perls, in her Paris gallery that she opened in 1932 after splitting up with Klaus' father Hugo. He spent his first two years in New York selling paintings through other art dealers, primarily paintings shipped or recommended to him by his mother from Paris that were not selling well in the Depression-era French art market. These were primarily the work of Maurice Utrillo, Marie Laurencin, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck. In 1937 he formally established his own gallery, the Perls Galleries, on East 58th Street and continued to specialize in French and European contemporary art. Around the same time, his older brother Frank opened a gallery in Beverly Hills, California.
Klaus Perls was familiar with other New York dealers specializing in modern European art such as Valentine Dudensing and Pierre Matisse, but he tried to distinguish himself by catering to young collectors. When the war restricted the international art trade and his mother was forced to flee France during the Occupation, Perls began dealing in contemporary American artists such as Darrel Austin and Karl Priebe.
Perls married Amelia Blumenthal, fondly known as "Dolly," in 1940, and she became his business partner.
After the war, the international art market exploded, and the Perls made frequent buying trips to Europe. The Perls Galleries continued to sell primarily contemporary French art and gained an early reputation as a staunch defender of modern art by European artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Lger, Soutine and Pascin. Perls prepared catalogues raisonns on Soutine and Pascin.
Klaus Perls was one of the founding members of the Art Dealer's Association, whose initial mission was to clean up the reputation of the art market following a series scandals involving fake antiquities that flourished in the 1960's. Perls was the Association's second president, after Pierre Matisse.
In 1954 Perls Galleries moved to 1016 Madison Avenue, a building that served as both gallery and home for the Perls. The same year Perls became Alexander Calder's dealer after the death of Calder's previous dealer, Curt Valentin. Perls explained his inclusion of Calder, a rare American among his stable of European artists, by saying that Calder's roots lay in France and that Calder bridged Europe and America the way Perls felt he did himself. In 1970, Calder designed the terrazzo sidewalk in front of the gallery and often resided in the Perls' home during long visits to New York City. Perls Galleries later handled Calder's estate and functioned as a quasi-archives of Calder's works, holding more than 7,000 negatives depicting Calder's art and preparing a Calder catalogue raisonn.
Klaus was named as a third-party defendant in the 1969 World War II looted art case
Menzel v. List
. When Erna Menzel sued Albert List for ownership of a Chagall painting confiscated from Menzel by the Nazis, List in turn sued Perls, who had sold him the painting in 1955, having purchased it himself from a Paris art dealer. The court awarded the Chagall painting to Menzel and ordered Perls to pay List the appreciated value of the painting.
Perls began building an important collection of African artwork and fell in love with art from Benin in the 1970's. In 1991 he donated more than 150 pieces of royal art from Benin to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Perls closed their gallery in 1997; Amelia Perls died in 2002, and Klaus Perls died in 2008.