The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Simon

Second half of the 19th century: From entrepreneurs to major businesses

Henri James Simon (1851-1932) was a German-Jewish entrepreneur, art collector, philanthropist and patron of the arts. His father, Isaac, was a tailor who founded a successful men’s clothing store. Observing fluctuations in the price of cotton, Isaac soon realized how interconnected global markets were and cultivated contacts with cotton producers to reduce costs. Eventually, he began importing cotton himself. When the American Civil War created a world-wide cotton shortage, Isaac sold his cotton inventory at a tremendous markup, making him a rich man. After educating James in the family business, Isaac sent his son to Britain, the heart of modern textile manufacturing, to learn more about the business. James dramatically expanded the family business, becoming an extremely wealthy man.

Philanthropy and social justice

Looking to Egypt rather than the US to purchase cotton not only made James Simon wealthy – his travels also introduced him to the European fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and history. Most famously, James financed the archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt’s excavations in Egypt, which led to the discovery of a bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti in Amarna in 1912. Simon donated most of his art collection, including the bust, to the Berlin State Museum – although he later asked that it be returned to Egypt. His passion for art and his generous donations, but also his participation in German colonial practices, reveal not only James’s philanthropic energy, but also the extent to which Jews had become part of German society.

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