James Simon: Art Collector & Owner of The Nefertiti Bust

With the Bust of Nefertiti, James Simon donated one of the Berlin Museum's most significant treasures, elevating his patronage to international prominence.

Jul 9, 2024By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
James Simon and the Nefertiti Bust
Portrait of James Simon and the Bust of Nefertiti


During his lifetime, James Simon assembled a large art collection and donated more than 10,000 treasures to the Berlin Museums. Among those works, was the famed Bust of Nefertiti (1351-1334 BCE) discovered in 1912 by a team of archaeologists funded by the “Cotton King,” James Simon. His remarkable philanthropy didn’t stop at the art scene, he donated a third of his wealth towards education and the poor. Who was James Simon, the man who bears the titles entrepreneur, the Great Patron of the arts, and social benefactor?


The James Simon Galerie

Interior of the James Simon Galerie, Berlin Museum. Source: David Chipperfield Architects


The architecture is light and airy. Visitors are welcomed by an expansive perron and elegant white colonnades. The James Simon Galerie bears the name of the famous Jewish art collector from the Wilhelmine period. With its modern shape and antique elements, the building exudes both the charm of the present as well as the past. Designed by architect David Chipperfield, the building stands as a significant symbol of James Simon’s importance, both in the early 1900s and today.


James Simon: The “Cotton King”

Portrait of James Simon, 1880. Source: State Museums of Berlin


Henri James Simon was born on September 17, 1851, in Berlin as a scion of a cotton wholesaler. At the age of 25, he started to work for his father’s company, which he soon made a global market leader. “Cotton King” first was the nickname of James Simon’s father, but then it was passed down to his son, too. In his position as a cotton wholesaler, James Simon became one of the wealthiest industrialists in Germany. Together with his wife Agnes and his three children, he lived a wealthy life in Berlin. The young entrepreneur used his newly gained wealth for his passion for collecting art and making it accessible to people. Thus, by the turn of the century, one of the wealthiest people in Berlin became one of the greatest patrons of the arts.


James Simon & Kaiser Wilhelm II

James Simon at his Desk in his Study by Willi Döring, 1901. Source: State Museums of Berlin


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James Simon made acquaintance with Kaiser Wilhelm II. after the Emperor of Prussia asked different entrepreneurs for official economic advice. James Simon and Kaiser Wilhelm II. are said to have become friends as they shared one passion: antiquity. There was also another important figure in James Simons’s life: Wilhelm von Bode, the director of the Berlin Museums. In close cooperation with him, he led the “Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft” (DOG) to excavate art treasures in Egypt and the Middle East. The DOG was founded in 1898 to foster public interest in antiques. Simon donated large sums of money for different expeditions carried out by the DOG.


The Owner of The Bust of Nefertiti

Bust of Nefertiti, 1351–1334 BCE. Source: Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany


Ludwig Borchardt’s excavations in Tell el-Amarna near Cairo, the capital of Egypt, brought international recognition to James Simon, just as they did for the Berlin museums. It was there that Pharaoh Akhenaton around 1340 BCE built Achet-Aton, the new capital for his revolutionary monotheistic solar state. This excavation campaign was extremely successful. The main pieces of the numerous finds were portrait heads of various members of the royal family of Akhenaton made of stucco and the unusually well-preserved painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, who was the pharaoh’s main wife. Since Simon was the sole financier and had concluded a contract with the Egyptian government as a private individual, the German share of the finds was passed into his personal possession.


The Private Collector

The James Simon Cabinet the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (Bode Museum), 1904. Source: State Museums of Berlin


While James Simon is still primarily associated with the find of the bust of Nefertiti, his possessions contained far more treasures. Years before the bust of Nefertiti was discovered in 1911, the Jewish entrepreneur’s house had transformed into a kind of private museum. In the Wilhelminian era, private art collections were regarded as an opportunity to gain and represent social significance. Like many other nouveau riches, James Simon made use of this possibility. When the Jewish entrepreneur acquired his first painting by Rembrandt van Rijn he was only 34 years old.


Art historian Wilhelm von Bode had always been an important advisor to the young art collector. Over many years a carefully selected and high-quality private collection with objects from different art genres was created by both men. In addition to antiquity, Simon was particularly enthusiastic about the Italian Renaissance. In a period of about 20 years, he had assembled a collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and coins from the 15th to the 17th centuries. All these treasures were stored in the private house of James Simon. With an appointment, visitors could come there and see his belongings.


The Benefactor of Art

The Interior of the Neues Museum, 2019. Source: State Museums of Berlin


The idea of collecting art to make it accessible to other people was always crucial for James Simon. This thought also underlies the donations he made to the Berlin museums beginning in 1900. In the course of a new museum project, the 49-year-old donated his Renaissance collection to the state collections of Berlin. In 1904 the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, which is called the Bode Museum today, was opened. The museum was a central concern for Wilhelm von Bode for years and it was promoted by Kaiser Wilhelm II as a Prussian prestige project.


For Simon, as a collector and Prussian patriot, it was very important to be involved in this company. His Renaissance collection complimented the existing holdings and was exhibited in a separate room called The Simon Cabinet. At Simon’s request, the collection was presented in a common variety, which was very similar to his private collection at his private home. It is precisely this motif of art presentation that was shown again in 2006, almost 100 years later, when the Bode Museum was reopened after it had been renovated.


Berlin / Zentralarchiv

The Reinstallation of the James Simon Galerie in the Bode Museum, 2019. Source: State Museums of Berlin


The Bust of Nefertiti was donated to the Berlin museums by James Simon with a large part of his collection in 1920. It happened seven years after the bust and other finds from Tell el-Amarna found their place in his private collection. Then, numerous guests, above all Wilhelm II. admired the new attractions. On his 80th birthday, Simon was honored with a large inscription at the Amarna room in the Neues Museum.


His last public intervention was a letter to the Prussian Minister of Culture in which he campaigned for the return of the bust of Nefertiti to Egypt. That, however, never happened. The bust of Nefertiti is still “a Berlin woman”, as the author Dietmar Strauch called the treasure in his book about James Simon. In 1933, after the beginning of the anti-Semitic dictatorship of the National Socialists in Germany and before World War II, the aforementioned inscription was removed, as were all other references to his donations. Today a bronze bust and a plaque commemorate the patron.


The Social Benefactor

Main Entrance of the James Simon Galerie. Source: State Museums of Berlin


James Simon was a great benefactor of art. In total, he gave around 10.000 art treasures to the Berlin museums and therefore made them accessible to everyone.  The entrepreneur was far more than a benefactor of the arts; James Simon was also a social benefactor, as he spent a lot of his money (a third of his total income) on social projects. In an interview with Deutschlandfunkkultur, a German broadcast, author Dietmar Strauch explains that one can assume this has something to do with Simons’ daughter: “He had a mentally handicapped daughter who only became 14 years old. He was busy all the time with sick kids and their problems. One can assume that his sensorium was sharpened for that.”


The reason why few people know about James Simon’s social commitment is he never made a big deal of it. As you can read on a plaque in the Berlin district Zehlendorf, Simon is quoted as saying: “Gratitude is a burden that no one should be burdened with.” There is evidence that he founded numerous aid and charity associations, and opened public swimming pools for workers who otherwise could not have afforded a weekly bath. He also set up hospitals and holiday homes for children and helped Jewish people from Eastern Europe to start a new life in Germany. Simon also directly supported many families in need.


Remembering James Simon

The opening of the James Simon Galerie, 2019. Source: State Museums of Berlin


Entrepreneur, art collector, patron, and social benefactor – if you consider all the roles that James Simon slipped into in his life, it paints a broad picture of this famous man. James Simon was a socially recognized man within the framework of what was possible with the latent antisemitism of the time. Friends and colleagues described him as extremely correct, very reserved, and always anxious to separate the personal from the professional. James Simon was presented with titles and honors, which he accepted so as not to offend anyone. He did all that with quiet satisfaction but eluded any public ceremony. James Simon died only one year after he was honored in the Amarna room in the Neues Museum at the age of 81 in his hometown of Berlin, Germany. His estate was auctioned in 1932 by the auction house Rudolph Lepke in Berlin.


Originally published: August 7, 2019. Last updated: July 9, 2024. 

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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.