The art of collecting art

It is not the first time I read about the famous Mexican art collection by Gelmans.  Jacques Gelman and his wife Natasha were avid collectors of Mexican art and became its patrons when they commissioned Diego Rivera to paint her portrait.  Upon Mrs. Gelman’s death in 1998, their collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has since been exhibited at various Museums.

The interesting fact is that Jacques Gelman (Гельман) was a Russia- born entrepreneur.  However, there is very little and most of the time contradicting information on internet about his early life, education and family in Russia.

In many online articles you will find statements that in his teens (1920s) Jacques travelled to Germany to study photography.  He even had a chance to work as a film technician or a ”camera pusher” at a motion picture studio Pathe in Berlin.  Within 3 years Jacques moves to Paris and becomes a distributor of French films.  The work takes him to Mexico City in 1939 just at the outbreak of the war.  Jacques  finds himself stranded there, but continues to work.   In 1941 Jacques marries Natasha Zahalka, a Czech immigrant from Moravia.

Mr. Gelman’s fortune was owed primarily to his share in the profits of the enormously successful Mexican movies that featured the comedian Cantinflas.  Thanks to that fortune, the Gelmans could buy just about anything they liked in the way of art.  The couple began amassing art and brought into the world a sweeping collection of 20th-century European and Mexican art.  They purchased the Mexican art mostly from friends as they took part in the vibrant art scene of mid-century Mexico City.

Jacques Gelman died on July 22, 1986 in Houston, Texas.

Life in Russia

As with any Russian-born celebrity, my interest is to uncover Jacques’s early life in Russia and learn more about his family.  As there is very little information on internet, I grab every comment ever made and get a very interesting picture.

Jacques (and this is obviously not his real name given at birth) was born in St Petersburg in Nov 1909 [2] to Jewish parents.  He was ”aristocratically educated in St. Petersburg, Russia”, whatever it means.

I learn that he ”had been sent packing to Europe by his land-owning parents following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution” [1] .  Proa foundation in Buenos Aires, which specializes in Contemporary Art, writes that Jacques’s parents sent him to Berlin with the housekeeper of the family after the October Revolution.

Sabine Rewald goes further in her book ”Twentieth Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection”:

”as a young man in Russia, Jacques had demonstrated  a precocious interest in photography.  He had received a stipend from the Soviet Union to study abroad.”

But by the time Revolution came in 1917 Jacques was about 6-8 years old , too young to travel alone in Europe.  And it looks like the family stayed in post-Revolutionary years in St Petersburg.  Once Jacques was old enough he either received a stipend from the Soviet Union to study abroad, or went with the housekeeper, but in no way received ”an aristocratic education”.  Or was his father smarter than we think and decided to send his son away from the uncertain future?

If Jacques stayed in Petersburg long enough after the Revolution, he would have meet the fate of his cousin Gelman Moisei Wolfovich (born 1906) who was killed in 1938 during Stalin Purges in Leningrad.  I have found his record in database of Victims of Political terror (here).

I browse Russian and English websites for the surname Gelman.  Within few minutes I  discover on Geni .com (genealogical /family tree builder website) an entry for Jacques Gelman, which lists his parents.  Jacques parents were Zahar and Lilya Gelman.  This helps me to find Jacques father in St Petersburg address books for 1917-my first and best resource in case the ancestors were from St Petersburg.

Gelman Zahar Moiseevich is listed at 5th Rozhestvenskaya Street, 13 and he is running timber processing company and he is not a “land-owner” as mentioned above.  Zahar is in business with his brother Vladimir (recorded in 1909 address books as Wolf).  The first year brothers appear in St Petersburg books is 1909.

To your knowledge some address books for Leningrad (former St Petersburg) survived for after-Revolutionary period.  I am surprised to find Zahar Moiseevich ”alive” in the telephone address book for 1925.  He lives on 5th Soviet street, 11/13.  This the same building where he lived before Revolution.  The street changed the name from 5th Rozhestvenskaya Street.

Amongst 111 entries on St Petersburg Historical archive’s electronic database there are no entries for Zahar or Vladimir.

I move to my next internet resource for Jews in St Petersburg – Jewish cemetery–  Here I strike a luck.  I find the following entries:

  • Gelman Z. M. who was born in 1876 and died in 1926.  It is safe to assume that this is the burial of Zahar Moiseevich.
  • Gelman V. Moiseevich born 1892 died 1966 (i.e. Wolf)
  • Gelman A. Moiseevich born 1878

It looks like the family of three brothers stayed in Russia after Revolution indeed.   In the years following the Russian Revolution, a bitter Civil war was waged between the Bolsheviks, with their Red Army on the one side, and the various groups that constituted the anti-Bolshevik movement on the other.  It brought death and suffering to millions of people regardless of their political orientation.  People were dying from hunger and disease.  But they had to adjust to a new way of life and survive.

The most ambitious comment

Then I find the most ambitious comment made on internet about Jacques:

who escaped the Soviet Union to study photography in Berlin with a pocketful of Fabergé eggs, a parting gift from his father, as collateral.” [1] and ”his pockets stuffed with several Fabergé eggs he luckily was never forced to sell.”

I hope that these comments came from a reliable source.  But if you ever read anything about Faberge eggs, you would know that there was a limited number of jeweled eggs created by Peter Carl Faberge between 1885 and 1917. The most famous are those made for the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers, often called the ‘Imperial’ Fabergé eggs.  Then there were 7 eggs which were ordered by Alexander Kelch who gave them to his wife Barbara (Varvara) Kelch-Bazanova.  And 8 ”other” eggs which are accounted for.  In total out of the 65 known Fabergé eggs, 57 have survived to the present day.FabergeUSHB

There is a very interesting book written by Tony Faber “Faberge’s eggs” I came across it many years ago and it was a good timing to reread it.  The question remains if Jacques’s eggs were a replica of Faberge eggs or egg-related merchandise designed by Faberge?  Probably the ”inlaid trinkets of prestigious goldsmith Czar, Fabergé” [2] which Jacques managed not to sell ”despite the ups and downs that had happened in the beginning”.

I will finish my research with the writing on Zahar Moiseevich Gelman’s burial stone:

” I will remember and honor you always and everywhere. Your son”.





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