Who was James Simon? The answer is given by the historian Olaf Matthes in his book “James Simon – Die Kunst des sinnvollen Gebens”: “A Philanthropist, patron, patriot and Jewish cosmopolitan. James Simon promoted the education of large segments of the population and helped the socially weak. The Berlin museums owe to him Nefertiti and other immeasurable treasures. He stood for a common sense which was violently destroyed in 1933.”
Through his keen interest in the arts and his close relationship with Willhelm von Bode – a key figure in the life of Berlin’s museums and later Director-General of the Royal Museums – Simon became one of the most important patrons of Berlin’s museums. His interests as a collector formed a perfect symbiotic relationship with the vision of the head of the museums. Now spread across the seven collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, James Simon’s donations comprise more than 10,000 objects.
James Simon (1851-1932) was born in Berlin to a Jewish family on 17 September 1851 and grew up in an era of financial prosperity. During his high-school years, he acquired a love for classical philology and the culture of antiquity that would accompany him for the rest of his life. He married Agnes Reichenheim, the daughter of a textile merchant, with whom he started a family. Although his family background predestined him for a career in the cotton business, he was determined to pursue his passion for culture, and he began collecting art as soon as he became financially independent.
Besides his love of art, Simon was committed to the well-being of his city’s poor and needy, and consistently gave one third of his significant income to altruistic and humanitarian causes. He was as respected a member of Berlin society as the latent antisemitism of Wilhelmine Germany allowed. He died on 23 May 1932, and was buried at the Jewish Cemetery on Schönhauser Allee.
James Simon achieved international recognition on the cultural stage when he expanded his interests to the Near East. He founded the “Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft” (DOG, “German Oriental Society”) in 1898, and started funding excavations in Tell el-Amarna in 1911. This was the beginning of an adventure that culminated in the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti. The artefacts retrieved in Tell el-Amarna were exhibited in Berlin in 1913 and later generously donated to the museum, prompting an enthusiasm for Egypt in Germany that still lives on to this day.
In his role as deputy treasurer, James Simon successfully used the DOG to organise and finance excavations in Egypt and the Near East. The portion of the finds that were sent to Germany enriched the Ancient Near East collection of the Berlin Museums to such an extent that they were able to compete with those of the Louvre and the British Museum. Between 1897 and 1918, Simon donated half a million gold marks to the DOG to fund excavations in the Near East, exceeding even the emperor with his generosity. These funds were indispensable for the unearthing of the spectacular finds of the excavations in Babylon, with the monumental glazed brick walls of the Procession al Way and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon later going on display at the Pergamonmuseum.
The Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (today the Bode-Museum) opened its doors in 1904. It had long been one of Wilhelm von Boden’s main projects, and had the financial backing of Emperor Wilhelm II. As a collector and Prussian patriot, it was important for Simon to be involved in this enterprise. He donated his Renaissance collection of around 500 objects to the museum
In 1916 James Simon informed Bode that he would donate a large portion of his art holdings. This second donation – 350 works, primarily made up of German and Dutch wooden sculptures from the late Middle Ages – took place in 1918, and was to remain unique. No other major collector was willing to take such a radical step in the crisis-ridden post-war period.
James Simon and his wife Agnes also made significant contributions to the Museum für Asiatische Kunst’s acquisition of artworks from the estate of the art dealer Hayashi Tadamasa (1853–1906) – an extremely important figure in the trade of Japanese art to Paris at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, these acquisitions were lost during the war, and are no longer in Berlin. The Simons were also active in the field of Japanese graphic art, and donated numerous woodcut prints to the museum.
In 1904, Simon became the head of the Museum für deutsche Trachten und Erzeugnisse des Hausgewerbes (Museum for German Traditional Costumes and Domestic Products), founded by Rudolf Virchow in 1889. In this role, he managed to incorporate the museum into the Royal Museums as the German Folklore Collection, housed in the prehistoric department of the Museum für Völkerkunde.
As a patron, Simon sponsored a collection of 24 large-format model houses representing all the regions of Germany. They were used primarily as documentation and educational resources to demonstrate the regional living and working environments of the 19th and 20th centuries, and are still highly informative. Through this activity, the name James Simon also became linked with the history of the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (previously known as the Museum für Deutsche Volkskunde [German Folklore Museum]).
From 1938 onwards, though, objects donated by Jewish patrons were labelled only as “gifts”, and the works donated by James Simon were removed from their original cabinet in August of 1939. After 35 years, the reputation of Berlin’s great patron had fallen victim to the racist policies of the Nazi regime, and even after 1945, the name James Simon came to be largely forgotten. After the division of Germany the works from Simon’s collection were split between the Eastern and Western part of Berlin. From 1973 works of the collection were shown in a room of the museums in Berlin-Dahlem.
Since 2009, James Simon’s patronage has been recognised through a special James Simon room at the Bode-Museum. In 2019, the James-Simon-Kabinett is finally redesigned in its original room 216 in the Bode Museum and reopened to the public. As a marker of appreciation, the Museumsinsel’s new main entrance building has been named James-Simon-Galerie.