Jan Krugier: Holocaust survivor who became an art dealer and champion of Picasso

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The Independent Online

If, as has been said, the Holocaust produced no great work of art, it did produce one great art dealer: Jan Krugier, survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, and, later, a champion of Picasso and Giacometti. Krugier made the connection himself between the two disparate parts of his life – the first spent evading Nazi gas chambers and death marches, the second in the gilded comfort of Genevan society. Tormented by what he called a "Pandora's box" of memories, Krugier turned to art as a form of therapy. "To cope with anxiety, I look at drawings," he said in old age. "It's a kind of self-defence, but it works."

This in itself was remarkable, given what the young Janick Krygier (as he was known for the first part of his life), had lived through. Born in Radom, south of Warsaw, the future collector and dealer was the eldest son of Alfred Krygier, a well-to-do Jewish businessman with connections in Switzerland. Although moderately religious, the elder Krygier was a sophisticate: his son recalled him as "very French-minded", travelling to Paris twice a year to buy Soutine and Chagall.

Fatally, Alfred was also a Polish patriot. Instead of running as the Germans invaded, he stayed to fight and was killed. In 1942, his wife and younger son were sent to the gas chambers at Treblinka, Janick only escaping by joining the Polish resistance. Aged 14, he smuggled a bomb into the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, where members of the German command were billetted and where, in happier times, the Krygiers had stayed en famille to go to the opera. In 1943, their elder son was also caught, and sent to Auschwitz.

What followed was the by now all-too-familiar litany of horrors. On arrival, the young Krygier heard the cries of inmates herded into gas chambers to make room for this latest transport of Jews. A slave labourer, he survived both the Allied bombing of the IG Farben factory at Auschwitz III in 1944 and two subsequent death marches. The first of these was to Dora-Nordhausen and the second to Belsen, where he was liberated by the British in April 1945.

By then, all his family were dead. Aged 17 and with his concentration camp number still tattooed on his arm, Krygier was sent by the Red Cross to live with family friends in Zurich. The transition was difficult. In common with many survivors, Janick (now Jan) was tormented by memories of what he had seen: "I hated art," he said half a century later. "I hated everything."

Having nursed pre-war ambitions to be an artist, he enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, where he was taught by the ex-Bauhaus painter Johannes Itten; in 1947, Krugier, took a studio in Paris. There, he met the two artists who would shape his life, Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. The former persuaded him to give up painting for dealing on the grounds, Krugier later recalled, that his work was too full of anguish to make it on the market. In Picasso, the young Holocaust survivor found the titan he had been looking for, a god to believe in.

In 1962, the Galérie Jan Krugier opened in Geneva. Although this would eventually deal in the work of everyone from J.M.W. Turner to Jean-Michel Basquiat, it was the sole rights the gallery held over the vast collection of Picassos inherited by the artist's granddaughter Marina that would make its name. In Krugier's telling, Marina Picasso had come to trust him after he helped her find treatment for her brother Pablito, who had swallowed bleach in a suicide attempt (from which he later died), after being barred from their grandfather's funeral.

The exclusivity of Krugier's deal with Picasso was the cause of predictable envy in the art world, and of predictable rumour. Unapologetic in manner and florid in dress – seated in the front row of an auction, Krugier looked like a character from a Tom Wolfe novel – the gallerist was not universally liked. This, combined with the huge sums of money he made from his Picasso connection, led to suggestions of unscrupulousness in his business dealings. The sale of a cache of previously unknown Picasso drawings, apparently given by the artist to his chauffeur, caused a small scandal in 1996; there were unproven allegations of trading in fakes.

Having come through worse things, none of this bothered Krugier particularly. In 1947, he had met the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in Switzerland. Watching Buber prepare for the Sabbath, the damaged young man suddenly broke down in tears, flooded with memories he had buried years before. The other great meeting in his life was with his wife, the artist Marie-Anne Poniatowska. When Krugier, a Jewish art dealer, asked Poniatowska's father, a descendant of the last King of Poland, for his daughter's hand, he expected to be turned down. In the event, Krugier recalled, the elderly aristocrat smiled broadly and replied that he was honoured to have a Jewish son-in-law.

In the course of their marriage, the Krugiers would amass one of the world's great collections of drawings, among them works by Ingres and Poussin, Rembrandt, Tintoretto and Veronese. It was these that Jan Krugier would pore over when in need of solace, although, as he confessed, the comfort was only fleeting at best. He remained, he said, a man in despair, cut off from the world, living from one depression to the next.

Janick Jakov Krygier (Jan Krugier), art dealer and gallerist: born Radom, Poland 12 May 1928; married firstly Eva Spierer (marriage dissolved), secondly 1969 Marie-Anne Poniatowska (one son, one daughter); died Geneva 15 November 2008.