Werner Muensterberger, 1913-2011


Werner Muensterberger, psychoanalyst, art historian, author and collector of African art, died Mar. 6 at his home in New York. He was just shy of 98.

His 1994 book Collecting, an Unruly Passion examines collectors through a psychoanalytic lens, and has become a classic in the field, illuminating the motivation that drives collectors, and the childhood experiences behind their sometimes illogical behavior, e.g., collecting as an exercise in self-soothing, a way to cope with childhood anxiety or trauma. In the aftermath of its publication, various collectors signed up to be his patients, joining a long line of luminaries that had spent time on his couch since the 1950s, which included Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, James Dean and Marlon Brando. Some of them had been referred to Muensterberger by his colleague Erich Fromm, who was treating the same patients on the West Coast. His near-century-long life included exchanges with personalities like Thomas Mann, Mary Wigman, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, Constantin Brancusi, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and Robert Rosenblum. 

Born Apr. 15, 1913, Muensterberger was the only child of a wealthy manufacturer of ladies’ hats and kitchen cabinets in Dortmund, Westphalia. At age 9 he was first exposed to modern, Chinese and African art by a relative, the prominent banker and collector Baron Eduard von der Heydt, to whom he dedicated his 1955 book Sculpture of Primitive Man. In the early 1930s, Muensterberger spent summers in von der Heydt’s Swiss retreat Monte Verità in Ascona. There he befriended the legendary art dealer Charles Ratton, who acquired premiere works of African art and whose Paris gallery was a gathering place for the Surrealists.

Ascona provided another important contact: Eckart von Sydow, professor of “Primitive Kunst” and a psychoanalyst in Berlin. Muensterberger had just enrolled at the University of Heidelberg to study medicine; Sydow convinced him to join him in Berlin to study ethnology and psychoanalysis, but Muensterberger soon had to flee the Nazis. He continued his studies at the University of Leyden and the University of Basel, writing a dissertation on Indonesian mythology, and another, in art history, on the influence of Italian art on the School of Utrecht painters during the 17th century. He spent most of the war in Amsterdam, much of the time in hiding at the house of his girlfriend, Dutch actress Elisabeth Andersen.

After the war, Muensterberger worked as a curator at the Stedelijk Museum. In 1947, he was invited to Columbia University, where he taught ethno-psychoanalysis before becoming professor of ethno-psychiatry at New York State University. Asked to explain what this particular field entailed, he would provide broad examples: “Chinese patients have symptoms that Westerners don’t know. Their fear of intimacy is enormous,” and, “West Africans don’t kiss.” When he arrived in New York, Muensterberger, who had lost his fortune during the war, carried only $100 and an African mask, which he later sold to Nelson Rockefeller (now at the Metropolitan Museum).

Muensterberger was married three times. His first marriage, to one of his students in New York, was brief. His second wife died of cancer a few years into the marriage. His third marriage, to American art dealer Helene Coler, lasted for almost four decades, until she died in 2003.

The doctor lived in London with Coler for 10 years, before returning to New York in 1985 and resuming his private practice. He saw patients until shortly before his death.

During the last years of his life, he was also writing a book with the working title Forgers on the Couch, in which he “psychoanalyzed” historical and modern forgers. Muensterberger’s subjects included Han van Meegeren, whose “Vermeers” fooled museum officials and the public alike during the 1940s, Konrad Kujau, who caused a scandal in Germany with his fabrication of “Hitler’s Diaries” in the 1980s; and, going back to ancient times, Moses. “Most forgers,” he said, “don’t just cheat the original artists they are forging, but also the expert, the ideal father figure.”