The Camondos: cosmopolitan bankers close to Paribas

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Blazon of the Camondo family - © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Blazon of the Camondo family - © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Known as the Rothschilds of the Orient, the Camondos are a line of five generations of financiers and philanthropists. Sephardic Jews, they were evicted from Spain during the Inquisition of 1492. In the middle of the 18th century they were in Constantinople, the city that would be the starting point of a great banking epic with the creation of the Bankhaus Isaac Camondo & Cie in 1802 by Isaac Camondo.

Thirty years later, upon his death, his brother Abraham Salomon Camondo inherited the bank. He then built one of the largest fortunes in the Ottoman Empire, assisted by his grandsons, Nissim and Abraham-Béhor (1829-1889).

View of Constantinople, Galata Area – © Photo Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris
View of Constantinople, Galata Area – © Photo Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

The bank’s development in Europe and its involvement in the Suez canal project led the two grandsons to set up in Paris in 1869. The Camondo family emigrated, transferring with it the bank’s head office. Under the impetus of Abraham Béhor, the family bank began to participate in many deals in Europe. In 1872, I. Camondo & Cie partnered with the growing Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas and, from 1876, Abraham Béhor became a member of the merchant bank’s board of directors. A bond was created between the two banks, which lasted until the end.

But Abraham Béhor, as the “good entrepreneur” he was, did not restrict himself to the financial world and diversified his activities, always in close company with his brother Nissim. Owners in rue Monceau (Paris), these admirers of the Enlightenment mixed with Parisian high society and collected works of art from all periods. A taste for culture that Abraham Béhor bequeathed to his son Isaac de Camondo (1851-1911). When he turned 18, Isaac decided very early to place art at the centre of his life. But it was difficult to break with the family tradition.

Isaac de Camondo around 1890 – © Photo Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris
Isaac de Camondo around 1890 – © Photo Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

So in 1874 he followed his father by joining the bank. During more than 20 years, Isaac de Camondo’s investments lived up to his family’s history. But then came 1889, the year of the crack. The consecutive deaths of his uncle and his father weakened the man. Now the elder of the clan, he wanted to close his banking affairs. The banking activity was acquired in France by the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas and in Constantinople by the Banque de Change et de Valeurs, two houses that the family had major investments in. In 1916, the Banque I. Camondo & Cie was liquidated.

For all that, were the financial activities finished? Not so much. Because in spite of the desire to devote himself to the more artistic pleasures, Isaac nevertheless succeeded his father by becoming a director of the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas in 1901, President of the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer Andalous and the bank’s representative in the Société Nationale pour l’Industrie, le Commerce et l’Agriculture in the Ottoman empire created in 1909.
Obligations, which nonetheless did not divert this enlightened art lover from his passion. An informed collector, he played an eminent role in impressionist art and was one of the first collectors of Japan arts in France. Today he is known for the “Salle de donation Camondo” in the Louvre, which evokes the generous endowment of 804 works from his collection upon his death, today scattered among five major Parisian museums. But this founding father of the Société des Amis du Louvre (1897) and the Conseil de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs (1899) didn’t limit himself to art. A great lover of music, a sponsor of musicians and himself a composer, he founded the Société des Artistes et des Amis de l’Opéra (1904) and contributed to the creation of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, whose opening he didn’t see (1913).

Since Isaac Camondo didn’t recognise either of his two illegitimate children, the family name continued on the side of his cousin Moïse. But the disappearance of his son Nissim during an air combat in 1917 and the deportation of his daughter’s family, the Reinachs, only heirs of the Camondo fortune, led to the extinction of the line.

Lieutenant Nissim de Camondo in 1917 – © Photo Les Arts décoratifs, Paris
Lieutenant Nissim de Camondo in 1917 – © Photo Les Arts décoratifs, Paris

In memory of his son Nissim, the Count Moïse de Camondo bequeathed his mansion house opening on the Parc Monceau (Paris) and his fabulous collection of arts acquired over time to the Arts Décoratifs Museum and the French State. The Nissim Camondo Museum was founded to perpetuate the passion of Moïse de Camondo for the decorative arts of the XVIII th century.
Now extinct, all that remains of the Camondo family are the magnificent collections that illustrate the incredible path of several generations of bankers who brilliantly married finance, culture and philanthropy.

To go further with the Camondo :

Nissim de Camondo Museum website
– David Assouline, Le dernier des Camondo, Paris, Gallimard, 1997
– Sophie Le tarnec & Nora Seni, Les Camondo ou l’éclipse d’une fortune, Paris, Actes Sud, 1997

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