Michel Strauss, supremo of modern art at Sotheby’s who presided over the spectacular rise of the impressionist market – obituary

At the time of the von Hirsch sale in 1978, Sotheby’s was advising the British Rail Pension Fund on the purchase of works of art for investment purposes. In the auction, which featured important works by van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse and others, the Fund bought, on Strauss’s advice, works that were to skyrocket.

Cézanne’s watercolor Nature Morte au Melon Vert was purchased by the Fund at the von Hirsch auction for £ 300,000 (the maximum sale price was £ 310,000, for a Matisse) and 11 years later sold for £ 2.2 million. A van Gogh drawing was bought for £ 205,000 and in 1989 sold for £ 2.1million.

For an aggregate expenditure of £ 3.4million on Impressionist and Modern art, the sale of the BR Pension Fund organized by Strauss in 1989 brought in almost £ 35million, with some works reaching 20-30 times their price. purchase 10 to 15 years earlier. This testified to Strauss’s mastery in his field.

Michel Jules Strauss was born in Paris on September 23, 1936, the first and only child of André Strauss and his wife Aline, born of Gunzbourg. His birthplace was a room in the spacious apartment his parents occupied at 54 avenue d’Iéna, the vast mansion of his mother’s family.

His grandfather Jules Strauss had left his native Frankfurt for Paris and had founded a private bank there; his mother’s father, Baron Pierre de Gunzbourg, came from a line of Russian financiers in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. The family of his maternal grandmother had made a fortune in oil. They were all Jews.

When Michel was two years old, his father died of cancer. Fearing for the well-being of his family in Paris as war loomed, he bought the Château de Brécourt in Normandy. From there, in May 1940, Michel’s mother kept him away from the German advance, eventually bringing him to safety in America.

Michel had a difficult childhood. Powerless to defend himself against harassment from nannies and a disciplined stepfather (physicist Hans von Halban, whom his mother married in 1943) and harassed in various schools for being French and Jewish, Michel developed a stuttering and asthma.

It was while he was little in New York that the seeds of his future career were sown. Taken by his mother to the Metropolitan Museum at the age of six, he saw paintings by Manet, Monet and Degas for the first time and was amazed. He greatly admired Degas’ La Femme aux chrysanthemums.

When he was seven, his mother took him to see The Art and Life of van Gogh, an exhibition of 80 van Gogh paintings on display at the Wildenstein Galleries. Back home, he drew his own goofy versions of van Gogh trees and decided he would like to be a museum curator.

In 1946 the family returned to Europe to live near Oxford, where Hans Halban had been appointed professor. Michel attended Magdalen College School before going to boarding school in Bryanston. Vacation visits to his widowed grandmother Strauss in Paris fueled his passion for art.

He discovered that his grandfather had been one of the first collectors of impressionist paintings, owning among others six Monets and two Cézannes. By the time Jules Strauss sold the last of them in the 1930s, more than 200 Impressionist works had passed through his hands.

Michel’s grandmother introduced him to the superb collection of impressionist paintings then exhibited at the Jeu de Paume. She taught him to look at and appreciate a work or art, and also the importance, when possible, of lightly touching the surface of a painting to feel its physical state.

It was during a visit to Paris in 1949 that Strauss made his first purchase of serious art. With some money his father had left him in a bank account his mother had recently discovered, he bought a bronze double of the sculptor’s Head of Hanako from the Rodin museum shop.

After Bryanston and an unsatisfying year reading PPE at Christ Church, Oxford, Strauss returned to America at the suggestion of his sympathetic new stepfather, Isaiah Berlin, to read art history (and Russian literature) at Harvard. This program suited Strauss perfectly.

It was during a new period of study in art history at the Courtauld Institute in London that Strauss caught the attention of Peter Wilson, president of Sotheby’s. In 1961 he joined the company’s new Impressionist and Modern art department, working as a cataloguer alongside Bruce Chatwin.


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