Saturday, 23 September 2023, our patron, the man who for decades has given his name to our business, would have turned 100. He passed away peacefully earlier this year, on 13 April.
Eberhard Walter Kornfeld, or "Ebi" as everyone knew him, was a monument in himself: an authoritative figure in the art trade and the art world, in Switzerland and internationally, for over seventy years. In February 1945, barely 22 years old, Ebi began a three-year internship at the renowned art dealership of August Klipstein, formerly Gutekunst & Klipstein, which had been based in Bern since 1920. During the summer months he visited print cabinets in Basel, Paris, London and Amsterdam, for example, to continue his self-education. He was so studious and dependable a pupil that August Klipstein entrusted him with more and more projects and finally took him on permanently.
After the unexpected death of their mentor and boss in April 1951, Frieda Schuh and Ebi took over the company together, with the Klipstein family. After a few years, Ebi became sole managing-director, gradually acquired the majority share of the business, and ran the company as a limited partnership under his own name from 1972. Whereas auctions once seemed to be conspiratorial gatherings of dealers who went shopping for their customers or their stock, the auction business changed radically after the Second World War. More and more private individuals appeared as buyers, and auctions changed from being purely "insider" events at the horseshoe table to "public" events with a more diverse attendance. In Switzerland it was Ebi who recognised the signs of the times and from then on welcomed the "who's who" of the art world to his auction rooms. He quickly became a legend, and his sales in Bern of great renown. In 1972, he even made the front page of The New York Times with his first million-dollar bid - for a painting by Paul Cezanne.
But Ebi was never just interested in record prices: no, he was primarily interested in art, in all its complexities. He would describe a print for 1,000 Swiss francs with the same meticulousness and refinement as a painting worth millions. For many decades it was Ebi himself who wrote the auction catalogues, so that in all those years practically all the works of art sold by our house passed over his desk. There can have been few indeed who have ever held so many works in their hands as Ebi did in his long life, as a dealer, an auctioneer and as a collector. If one were to add up in his publications, that is his auction, scholarly and exhibition catalogues as well as all the works he described privately, the sheer number of his descriptions – of paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures and illustrated books ¬– would defy enumeration! Hi s extraordinarily impressive and well-founded knowledge and experience justified his reputation as a widely respected "scholar-dealer". His passion was also evident in his own collection: he would show and discuss it with friends and fellow enthusiasts, and he was more than happy to make it available to museums for exhibitions. He generously bequeathed parts of it to various institutions.
His zeal to share his knowledge led to his compiling and publishing definitive catalogues raisonnés, and to the setting of new standards in the process. And so it is today that experts, dealers and collectors around the world classify and describe states of prints by Paul Gauguin, Alberto Giacometti or Paul Klee, for example, by their "Kornfeld numbers". His academic work, and his work as an art dealer, have been honoured with numerous awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern (1982), the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1984), the Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres from the Republic of France (1991), and honorary citizenships of Davos (1993) and the City of Bern (2011).
Ebi was not only an auctioneer, but a gallery owner and dealer who maintained close and friendly business contacts with many artists of his day: Marc Chagall, Sam Francis, Franz Gertsch, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Mitchell, Pablo Picasso, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely are just a few amongst many others. He was also involved in cultural policy issues and was President of the Swiss Art Dealers Association for thirty-seven years.
Almost ten years ago the next generation took over the reins of the 150-year-old company which had been shaped by Kornfeld for almost half of its history. It was an incredible privilege to work so intensively with him, as a master and mentor, over the last few years, to learn from him every day and to grow with him. He took an active part in the company's operations into his venerable old age and conducted his last auction in 2017, with flying colours. Ebi worked for the company for over seventy-eight years, sixty-six of them at the front of the house, in every sense. And nearly five years ago he was also involved in an architectural competition that set the course for the renovation and expansion of our premises.
We will continue in his spirit: it is an honour and an obligation for us — he is and remains our guiding light and a great example to us all. Together with his family and friends we are immensely sad to have lost him; but joyful too, that we had one of the very greats among us.
Christine Stauffer, Bernhard Bischoff, Christoph Kunz
Pascal Baumgartner, Laura Fellner, Hans-Peter Keller, Yvonne und Paolo Mostaccio, Michaela Muhmenthaler, Lea Raffl, Jan Scharf, Marie-Anne Villars