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Kahn, Otto H.

American, 1867 - 1934

Otto Hermann Kahn was born in Mannheim, one of the eight children of Bernhard and Emma (née Eberstadt) Kahn. His father was a banker who took part in the German revolution of 1848, was condemned to death, and escaped to America. He remained in the U.S. for ten years, becoming a naturalized citizen, but returned to Germany after an amnesty for revolutionary refugees had been declared. His fiancee's parents would not consent to his taking their daughter to America, so Kahn stayed in Germany and raised his children with a good deal of exposure to things cultural. The Kahn children grew up surrounded by valuable works of art. Otto learned to play the cello and violin as a youth, and by the age of seventeen had written two five-act tragedies in blank verse (though they were never performed). When Kahn was in his teens, his father had him apprenticed to a bank in Karlsruhe as an office-boy and general handy-man. Otto showed the same talent for finance as his father, and at seventeen was promoted to the level of a clerk. During his free time, he studied music and attended lectures at the local University. He served his year of military service to the state when he was twenty, and the next year joined the Deutsche Bank in Berlin. He was soon transferred to this bank's London branch, where he spent five years and became a naturalized British citizen. Next, Kahn was offered a position with the New York banking house of Speyer & Company; this brought him to New York in August of 1893. After two years there, he returned to Europe for a year, indulging his penchant for travel, art, and music. Shortly before Kahn's thirtieth birthday in 1897, he joined the New York banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. A year before, he had married the wealthy daughter of a former partner in this firm, Addie Wolff. Kahn remained with Kuhn, Loeb. & Co. for the rest of his career, becoming well-respected among bankers and industrialists (such as Edward H. Harriman) for his financial genius. By the time of his marriage, Kahn had already begun collecting works of art. In 1903 he purchased stock in the Metropolitan Opera Company, contributing large sums from his own fortune to keep the struggling Company in operation. In 1908 he recruited from Milan director Guilio Gatti-Casazza and conductor Arturo Toscanini, thus launching the Opera into its most successful period. Kahn became chairman of the Company in 1911, then served as its president from 1918-31. His homes on Fifth Avenue and at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, became famous for their splendor and for the art collections they housed. The full extent of his patronage of the arts is not known, as he concealed many of his gifts, though it is known that he made a number of donations in both paintings and cash to museums across the country, and endowed university art departments, orchestras, operas, and theater groups. He also gave money toward the restoration of the Parthenon at Athens. In 1930 it was discovered that he had for years been giving cash prizes for black artists in New York. In 1917 when the United States entered WWI, Otto Kahn gave up his British citizenship to become an American citizen. Despite his German origin, he contributed generously to the Allies, being recognized in 1921 with a French Legion of Honor decoration. Several other countries also bestowed honors upon him. The stock market crash of 1929 was a heavy blow to Kahn--he paid no income tax in 1930, '31 or '32. He died suddenly of a heart attack while lunching with his partners in 1934, and was survived by his wife and four children: Maude Emily (later Mrs. John Charles Oakes Marriott), Margaret Dorothy (later Mrs. John Barry Ryan, Jr.), Gilbert Wolff, and Roger Wolff Kahn.
M'Cormick, William B. "Otto H. Kahn Collection." International Studio 80 (January 1925): 279-86.
Art Digest 8 (15 April 1934): 7.
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