Art across the borders

“Once upon a time …” The Kunsthandlung Julius Böhler’s summer blog this year’s could well begin with these words. A friendship that grew from a business relationship between a German art dealer and an American ‘circus king’ – whose story is told here – certainly has all the ingredients of a fairy tale.

Julius Wilhelm Böhler (1883–1966), the oldest son of the company founder Julius Böhler, became a partner in the successful and renowned Munich art trading company in 1906. Over the next few years he introduced his own innovative ideas and, in 1913, Julius Wilhelm Böhler and his business partner Fritz Steinmeyer travelled to the USA with the aim of establishing contact with American collectors.

Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, Albert Keller, the director of the Ritz Carlton in New York, they met the American circus magnate and art collector John Ringling (1866–1936) there in the early 1920s – a stroke of good luck for the young art dealer! A close friendship between Julius Wilhelm – known as ‘Lulu’ – and John soon developed that was not merely restricted to the extremely wealthy American’s enthusiasm for art.

While Julius Wilhelm Böhler came from a very successful family of art dealers that had risen to become purveyors to the Prussian and Bavarian courts and had amassed considerable wealth within the space of just thirty years, John Ringling was a highly acclaimed ‘circus king’. The son of German immigrants, he and his four brothers had founded the ‘Ringling Brothers Circus’ in 1884. The successful family-run business quickly expanded and took over its competitors, the Barnum & Bailey Circus, in 1907.

In 1905 John Ringling married the young and pretty Mable Burton who was probably a former circus artiste

From 1909 onwards the couple spent the winter months in mild Florida where, over the years, they bought up extensive parcels of land in the seaside town of Sarrasota. Whenever their work enabled it, they made lengthy trips to Europe that were to further their taste in art. It was at this time that the Ringlings started to collect. The couple’s preferences were in keeping with the artistic tastes of the wealthy elite at the time. They acquired Italian Renaissance and Baroque works of art, German panel paintings, antiques and architectural artefacts. Through this private interest the art collector and connoisseur Ringling certainly intended to improve his social position as well: as a circus director he was considereed to be just one of the many nouveaux riches.

As already mentioned, John Ringling and Lulu Böhler became acquainted with each other in the early ’20s. Professional expertise and a mutual friendship certainly played important roles when they met. Böhler was to become a close confidant of Ringling and was pivotal in building up the latter’s collection. In 1924 the Ringlings commissioned the New York architect Dwight James Baum to build a magnificent villa in the Venetian Gothic style on the coastal strip in Sarrasota. The property was given the name ‘Ca’ d’Zan’ (Venetian for ‘John’s House’) and gave Ringling’s art collection a representative framework. At the same time Ringling was also playing with the thought of establishing a private museum that would equally be a prestigious monument to the couple’s interest in art.

In 1925 Ringling was at the height of his career. In the meantime, as the owner and manager of the two major American circus companies, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, TIME magazine devoted its lead story to him and his portait found its way onto the cover.

In spring 1926 Ringling acquired a series of works of art that were to be among the most important exhibits of the projected museum. These included a number of paintings, antiques and the furnishings of two rooms bought at the ‘Astor auction’ in New York that had once been in the Astor family’s residence. Upon Böhler’s advice Ringling successfully bid for four large cartoons by Rubens that had been commissioned by Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia of Habsburg (1566–1633). They were among works of art from the collection of the Duke of Westminster auctioned in London. What a coup for the son of a sometime immigrant! The works purchased at the Astor auction and the subsequent acquisition in the late 1920s of important European collections that had gradually evolved over time, provided Ringling with an unprecedented and unique opportunity to become the owner of a number of exceptional works of art within just a short space of time. The press made Ringling’s ambitious purchases known to the general public under headlines such as ‘Circus King Turns to World of Art’ and ‘Circus Man Buys Big Canvas for His Florida Collection’.

At the end of 1926 Mable and John moved into their magnificent Venetian palazzo in Sarrasota that was filled with countless works of art from the Old World. From 1929 onwards, a huge crystal chandelier from New York’s luxury Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, that closed its doors at that time, lit up the Great Hall. John’s yacht – Zalophus – as well as Mable’s intimate Venetian gondola could be boarded directly from the wide terrace that fronts the sea.

John purchased numerous objects for the projected museum. His tireless and successful consultant, Julius Wilhelm Böhler, was appointed curator of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1927. As had previously been the case, money was not an issue as Ringling had become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the USA through revenue from his circuses, shares in stretches of the railway network and oil fields.

In 1929, Mable, John’s much-loved wife, died following a diabetes-related illness. It was a tragic loss. The couple had only been able to enjoy the magic of Ca’ d’Zan together for three years. Julius ‘Lulu’ Böhler and his wife Regina sent their most sincere condolences and sympathy.

After Mable’s death, Ringling intensified his collecting activities. He travelled to England to attend the auction of works of art from the collection of the Earl of Marlborough, returning with four paintings, including ones by Guercino, Poussin and Bourdone. That same year he also acquired a large number of pictures by Dutch Old Masters. Between 1925 and 1931 Ringling bought more than 400 paintings and a large number of decorative art objects, most thanks to Julius Wilhelm Böhler’s expertise and intervention.

Not least of all encouraged by his successful work together with John Ringling, Julius Böhler – together with his Swiss business partner, Fritz Steinmeyer – established a permanent base for the company ‘Böhler and Steinmeyer Inc.’ at the Ritz Carlton in New York.

In 1929 Ringling bought up the American Circus Corporation – a major investment even for the ‘Circus King’. This proved disastrous as, in October, came the Wall Street Crash with its far-reaching consequences, followed by the Great Depression. Over the next few years, Ringling lost virtually all his assets. However, he did manage to rescue the Ca’ d’Zan, the museum and his art collection. In his private life, Ringling had no luck either. His second marriage in 1930, to Emily Haag Buck, was unhappy and was soon dissolved.

Lulu’s and John’s friendship was also at its closest in 1929. However, after the Wall Street Crash and the financial difficulties it brought with it, the working relationship and friendship between the consultant and the collector became increasingly tense.

In 1931 the museum, with its 21 exhibition rooms, opened to the public, albeit without the academic publication that Ringling had so much wanted from Böhler. There had been problems finding suitable photographic material and the scholarly appraisals of the paintings by European experts, such as the authors of choice Max Friedländer (1867–1958), the director of the Berliner Gemäldegalerie, and Hermann Voss (1884–1969), deputy director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, did not materialise. Böhler, who feared for his reputation by publishing an art-historical catalogue of inferior quality, suggested bringing out a summary of the collection with 75 of the most important works without any illustrations. But even this came to nothing. Due to other appointments Böhler was also unable to take up Ringling’s repeated invitations to attend the museum opening. The art dealer himself had to face financial difficulties and Böhler implored Ringling to pay his bills for the professional advice he had given over the years. He even had to sell his own home as a result.

That same year saw the end of John and Lulu’s working relationship and their friendship disintegrated. It was not until 1936 that Ringling was in a position to settle his debts with Böhler.

When John Ringling died at the age of 70 that same year, he bequeathed the museum, the art collection and his extensive library to the State of Florida. Ten years later, an agreement was made with Ringling’s creditors and the state was finally able to fulfil its obligation to establish a foundation. The museum ultimately opened its doors to the public in 1946. Between 1999 and 2002, extensive restoration works were carried out. Today, both the ‘Ringling’ and the Ca’ d’Zan gleam once again in their full glory.

Through its holdings of exquisite and important European works of art both buildings today are a testimony to the intensive, trustworthy partnership between the American entrepreneur and the German art dealer. What is more, the legacy of John and Mable Ringling is examplary in the transatlantic history of collecting in the early 20th century.

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