Ben Bernstein: Philadelphia’s Premier Art Patron (Part 1)

ben bernstein: philadelphia's premier art patron (part 1)

This past spring marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Ben Bernstein. The following is based on interviews with this remarkable gentleman (and others) a few months before his death at the age of 95.

Ben Bernstein was born in New York City in 1907, one of nine children of David Mocher and Sarah Bernstein Mocher. His mother and father were born in Poland, where they were orphaned when their parents were killed by Cossacks. When the couple arrived in America, immigration officials couldn’t pronounce David’s last name, so they used Sarah’s maiden name for the family.

Like many children of Eastern European immigrants, Ben grew up in humble circumstances, but he was anything but humble in his outlook. From an early age, he absorbed the lessons being learned by his father as he struggled to make a living in a new country without the benefit of education or the ability to read, write or speak English.

David initially worked for his brother, a kosher butcher in New York. As Ben recalls with a smile, “A half-dozen millionaires came from that shop at 38 Ludlow Street,” but his father wasn’t one of them. 

To improve their circumstances, the Bernsteins moved to Philadelphia, where David’s cousin Jacob Miller “owned a high class candy store” at 19th and Ritner Streets in South Philadelphia. Ben worked in that store until he quit elementary school to help his father in his ice and coal delivery business.

“I can still remember carrying blocks of ice on my hip,” he says. “I was the first son, so I didn’t have any choice but to pitch in to help the family. That’s the way it was in those days.”

David rented a pushcart to haul his ice in the summer and coal in the winter.  Later, when he could afford his own pushcart, he began buying and selling used furniture to earn extra money. He also used the cart to help neighbors move furniture when he wasn’t hauling ice or coal, and sometimes “held” furniture for those who were going to move. This evolved into the family’s moving and storage business.

Because David could not read or write English, Ben often acted in his father’s behalf and learned the basics of running a business at an early age. With more income, the family moved to the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia and began the traditional process of becoming both Americanized and prosperous.

When he was 23, Ben started his own storage business. Faced with the need for a name — “you can’t advertise without a company name”–he selected Quaker in honor of his adopted state. Quaker Storage eventually became five different companies.  At age 95, Ben is a little fuzzy on all of the details, but he is very sure of one thing. He ultimately became a founder and one of the owners of the largest containerized shipping company in the world, Container Transport International, which had offices in 20 cities around the world.

As he made his mark in the business world, Ben also became known as “a soft touch” for struggling artists. “I became interested in art at an early age and wound up buying paintings to help artists who couldn’t sell,” he recalls. “As a result, I became one of the biggest art collectors in the area.”

He bought his first paintings about 1935. As he became more knowledgeable about art and got to know more artists, "I became known as the guy who would buy anybody’s pictures for any amount of money if I had it,” he says. “And if I didn’t have it, I’d find some way to get it. I would buy art from anyone who could slam a brush!

“Basically, I felt sorry for creative people who couldn’t make a living. Every time I found an artist I thought was good, I bought from him.  After a while, every artist who knew anything about me would come and say, ‘Ben, can you give me some help?’ I’d ask them what they had. If I couldn’t afford what they asked, I’d say maybe we could make a trade and in that way we’d make a deal.”

Among the local artists he helped and whose paintings he collected were Julius T. Bloch, Seymour Remenick, Paul Keene and Bruce Samuelson.

“I was a second year student at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in the mid-1960s when Ben Bernstein purchased several of my paintings,” Samuelson recalls. “He always helped students out.  Ben liked being around artists and enjoyed knowing the artists he collected. He had strong opinions about art, but was soft spoken and gentle in dealing with artists, and always positive.”

A teacher at PAFA for the past 30 years, Samuelson credits Bernstein with having “a good eye, especially when collecting my work. He turned others on to collecting, some to become major collectors, including his younger brother Eddie.”

Paul Keene paints a similar picture of Ben. “I was a senior at Central High School when I met Ben. He would pop around to chat and have coffee with me.  He would always buy one or two paintings, sometimes while I was still working on them. Ben would say, ‘I’ll take that when you’re done. How much do you want for it?’

“Ben believed every artist had a right to a show –to be in a collection. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but he put collections together, including my paintings,  and donated them to colleges and universities all over the country. It was marvelous exposure for me and other artists. He was a good friend. By buying my paintings, he made life a lot easier for us.” 

A Bucks County resident now 85 years old and still painting, Keene recalls the picnics Bernstein used to have at his farm in nearby Ottsville  “and artists from all over the area would come and have a wonderful time. In those days, he would often call me and ask if it was OK to stop by for coffee and a chat. Of course, he was always welcome.”

For more on the life of Ben Bernstein and the artists he supported, continue reading Part 2.