Friday, October 1, 2010

Lehman Brothers . . . and History in Art

Heather Cox Richardson

On Wednesday, September 29, Christie’s auctioned off about twelve million dollars worth of artwork from the wreckage of Lehman Brothers. (Auction catalog.) While the pieces that made the news were Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu’s “Untitled 1,” which went for slightly more than $1 million, and Chinese artist Liu Ye’s “The Long Way Home,” which sold for slightly less than $1 million, historians can learn from the collection as a whole. It shows the history of the Lehman Brothers enterprise from its origins in the antebellum South through the collapse of 2008.

In a Wikipedia nutshell, the history of Lehman brothers runs like this:

What would become Lehman Brothers started in 1844 when Bavarian immigrant Henry Lehman opened a dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon Henry’s brothers, Mayer and Emanuel Lehman, arrived in America, and the three became cotton traders, organized as Lehman Brothers. The company opened a branch office in Manhattan in 1858, and moved headquarters there after the Civil War. By the 1880s, the surviving Lehman brothers (Henry had died of the dreaded yellow fever before the war) were heavily involved in the worlds of trade and finance.

So far, so good—at least as far as I know. But while Wikipedia goes on to list the company’s involvement with stocks and financial instruments, the artwork Christie’s sold tells a different story.

Notable, if you look through the collection, is the large number of Chinese art and artifacts. This suggests that Lehman Brothers was deeply involved in the late nineteenth-century Pacific trade, which took off after the 1868 Burlingame Treaty opened China to US business, and which brought enormous wealth to America before WWI. A number of paintings sold on Wednesday were of ships, both merchant ships and navy ships (and one excursion steamer painted by Gideon Yates*). The Lehman brothers clearly recognized the importance of ships both to carry and to protect their business ventures. They were—if you can trust their art—almost certainly involved in China.

The rest of the collection sold Wednesday tells another story. The many early eighteenth-century British paintings and prints were undoubtedly a way for rising immigrant businessmen to nail some status to their walls. And the recent years of world-wide investment banking not surprisingly added the sophistication of modern art to the collection.

The earlier and later art Lehman Brother gathered seems to me about what you would expect from a longstanding business’s art collection. But the Chinese pieces and the maritime art was a surprise. I had never thought that the Lehman Brothers that collapsed so spectacularly in 2008 might have been a player in America’s nineteenth-century ocean trade.


*No, guys, I’m not kidding. It sold for $3,748.

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