The Bacri Brothers

Bacri Frères was a Parisian art and antiquities gallery at 141, boulevard Haussmann. Heirs to 18th century ‘connoisseur’ collectors the Bacri brothers were prominent art dealers of the mid-20th century. Their collection reflects both the individual taste of the private collector and the professional competence of the antique dealer. But the legacy of the Bacri Brothers started centuries before that in 1782 when Joseph Cohen Bacri along with three of his brothers Jacob, Mardochée, and Salomon, founded a trading company named Salomon Cohen Bacri and Brothers in Algiers.

The company branches were spearheaded by Joseph in Algiers, Salomon in Livorno (Leghorn) and later on in Marseilles by Joseph. The Algiers branch shipped raw materials (feathers, wax, coral, leather, wool, grain) as well as great quantities of gold and silver to Livorno. In 1797 Nephtali Busnach joined and the company became the House of Bacri & Busnach and held the monopoly in Algeria for shipping grain to Europe. In the late Ottoman period Jewish merchants served as corsairs between European Christian countries and their Muslim counterparts in Northern Africa and so enabled them to do commerce with each other indirectly, much like the Radhanites of a millennia or so before then. This granted the merchants great political and diplimatic leverage in all countries that they were doing business with and it was no different for the House of Bacri & Busnach. What is more is that Nephtali Busnach had a great relationship with the newly appointed dey of Algeria, Mustafa b. Ibrahim, who even appointed him as his khaznadji or treasurer, a position that would later cause unhappiness in both the Jewish and Muslim quarters.

In 1798, Napoleon I invaded Egypt. To feed his troops, he bought grain from Bacri Busnach in Algeria, but he never paid them back. The dey, on advice of the Bacri Busnach, granted a loan to the French Directory at this time of 5,000,000 Francs and this debt would later be transferred to Bacri Busnach..The French government still could not afford to buy grain for the French populace, so in addition they borrowed money from Bacri Busnach to the amount of 8,000,000 Francs. A few years later in 1805 Algeria faced a grain crises and the dey’s leadership made him quite unpopular with his subjects. Tensions fuelled and the dey was assassinated for retaining his close relationship with Bacri Busnach (the monopoly holders of grain exports in Algeria) and this in turn spiralled into anti-Jewish riots. In the same year Busnach was also assassinated by a Turkish Janissary who the day before he had refused to hire. During this period of unrest the Bacri’s and their staff took refuge in the British consulate.

Following Napoleon's downfall, the next French government under Louis XVIII ignored the previous regime's debts, as did the successive regime under Charles X. In 1827, Hussein Dey, the new Ottoman governor of Algiers, called in the loans of Bacri & Busnach, but they claimed that they could not meet their obligations to the Dey until they themselves were repaid by the French. While trying to resolve the matter, the Dey met with French consul Pierre Deval. However, Deval refused to discuss the matter, remarking that His Most Christian Majesty could not deign to correspond with the Dey. Finally losing his temper, the Dey struck Deval with his fly whisk. News of the traded insults flew around the Mediterranean, causing international embarrassment for the French government and prompting the Dey to explain repeatedly that he was only responding to the agravating individual responsible for continued tensions between France and Algiers and that he meant no disrespect to King Charles or the French government in general. In retalliation for the perceived slight, France broke off diplomatic communication with Algiers and blockaded her port. The Dey then ordered several French trading posts destroyed at Bône (Annaba) and La Calle on the Algerian coast. Unable to permit the insults to go unanswered, the government of French King Charles X launched an all-out assault on Algiers in 1830 and the rest is history.

The Bacri family returned to Livorno and France after the invasion to continue their business and finally ended up creating the antique and antiquities dynasty that would collect many valuable antiques, including the Bacri-Clark Sickle leaf carpet that sold for near $34,000,000. On 30 March 2017 Sotheby's France concluded another sale of the collection of Jacques Bacri, one of the greatest art dealers of the mid-20th century. The auction reached a total of almost €4 million with 71% of the lots sold above their high estimate. These excellent results eloquently rewarded Jacques Bacri's refined and erudite taste in many fields: from paintings and drawings, to decorative arts and sculptures. The exceptional quality of the works was confirmed by enthusiastic bidding from both French and international collectors.

Photograph: Portrait of Jacques Bacri by Studio Harcourt

Extracts, sources and references: