G. Max Bernheimer examining a Roman onyx cameo in his office at Christie’s New York. Photograph by Adam Golfer

What I’ve learned: G. Max Bernheimer

Our International Head of Antiquities on his art-dealer roots in Germany, falling in love with Rome, and why he prefers library shelves to archaeological digs

My great-great-grandfather opened an art business in Munich in 1864. His name was Lehmann Bernheimer, and the firm grew to be the most prominent dealership in Germany. It was in a beautiful palazzo — the so-called Bernheimer-Haus — that still stands in the centre of the city. The business came tumbling down in 1938 with the rise of the Nazis, and my grandparents emigrated to Massachusetts, which is where I grew up.

My father liked Native American artefacts. He used to take my brother and me out walking in the cornfields after a rainstorm to search for arrowheads. They were everywhere, just lying in the ground, but the ground was also full of poison ivy roots. I got covered in rashes, head to toe. I totally suffered for my early finds.

When I was a teenager, my grandmother gave me a ring set with an engraved Roman stone. It depicted a lion in profile. I remember sitting in class, looking at this thing and wondering: Who made it? Why did they make it? Why the lion? These are questions that can never be answered, but they got me interested. So when I went to grad school I wrote my thesis on Harvard’s collection of engraved gems. And I still wear the lion ring.

Read G. Max Bernheimer’s expert guide to Classical engraved gems

I like the stories that objects tell us — and every object, however humble, has a story. In one recent sale we had a bronze nail. It was a foot-and-a-half long and not much to look at, though you might think it was kind of cool and abstract. It was found at the beginning of the 20th century in Lake Nemi, central Italy, and was probably part of a pleasure barge belonging to Caligula. Many wonderful ornaments from the ship are now in the Palazzo Massimo. Someone saw magic in that long nail — it sold for almost 10 times its estimate.

A Roman bronze nail, circa 1st century AD. 19¼  in (49  cm) long. Sold for £6,875 on 5 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

A Roman bronze nail, circa 1st century AD. 19¼ in (49 cm) long. Sold for £6,875 on 5 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

I’m not cut out for archaeology. Just before I came to Christie’s, I worked on a dig in Caesarea. I spent most of the summer in a trench, moving buckets of dirt. I loved every minute of it — we were right on the beautiful Mediterranean coast — but all I found was broken pots, so it was utterly boring, too. I quickly realised that art history, not digging, was the thing for me.

I fell in love with Rome the first time I saw it. It was dizzying, like getting hit over the head with the club of Heracles. On every street there’s some fragment of the ancient world stuck in a wall. And I was very happy to discover la cucina italiana, Sicilian cuisine in particular. Every conquering people left its culinary mark on Sicily, and in the 18th century even the French kings wanted a Sicilian chef — their cooking was considered the best in Europe.

G. Max Bernheimer admires the 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief which realised $30,968,750 at Christie’s in October 2018, making it the second-most expensive work of ancient art ever sold at auction

G. Max Bernheimer admires the 3,000-year-old Assyrian relief which realised $30,968,750 at Christie’s in October 2018, making it the second-most expensive work of ancient art ever sold at auction

In antiquities you are only as good as your library. I love it when I go to the stacks for a particular volume, then find that the 10 books either side of it are more interesting. But exploring library shelves for the sake of it seems to be a dying art form.

I have inherited some wonderful things. I have a 17th-century Bavarian lion made of copper, about 4ft-long. It is monumental, fantastic. My grandfather told me that when he was a kid in Munich, the lion stood on top of an armoire and he used to climb up and hide behind it. After the war, he went back to Germany and found it still there in the basement. He brought it to the States and put it in the window of his gallery — not for sale, just as a mascot. When his gallery was disbanded in 1992, I took the lion home. It lives with me still, and it gives me great pleasure.

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During the Nazi period, some of our family property was hidden in villages outside Munich. People looked after stuff at great risk to themselves. Years ago I met a German collector of antiquities, and she asked me if I was related to the Munich Bernheimers. I explained the affiliation, and she said: ‘My father was a friend of your uncle, and we kept things of his here in our barn.’ I had to hug her.

I am immensely lucky because I get paid to look at art. It has been a delight doing this job, and for that I thank the gods — the Greek gods, the Egyptian gods, all of them: I’m not prejudiced.