Robert Berney, 81, businessman, arts supporter


Robert L. Berney, founder and president of a travel agency and an art enthusiast who wrote and lectured on Baltimore's legendary Cone sisters, died Thursday at Sinai Hospital from complications of a fall. The Owings Mills resident was 81.

Mr. Berney was a great-nephew of the art-collecting Cone sisters and a great-great-grandson of Isaac Hamburger, who founded the Isaac Hamburger & Sons menswear business in 1850.

He began his working career as a salesman in the late 1930s at a Hamburger's store at Baltimore and Hanover streets. He rose to become personnel director and a member of the company's board. He left the company in 1961.

In 1964, he founded Berney Travel Service on Light Street, which for years coordinated international tours for the Baltimore Museum of Art and Goucher College. He was semiretired at the time of his death.

A cultivated man with a deep and lively appreciation for art, Mr. Berney not only was a contributor of art to the BMA, but was a longtime benefactor of the museum's annual fund drive and of the Friends of Modern Art.

"He was a real friend of the BMA, and he had a great interest here because of being a Cone descendant," said Sona Johnston, a BMA curator who described him as a "quiet, kind and scholarly man."

"He was very knowledgeable about his very distinguished family. As time passes, losses like Bob's take us farther away from those who actually knew the Cone sisters and their life together in the Marlborough Apartments on Eutaw Place," she said.

His great-aunts Claribel and Etta Cone were renowned as collectors of 19th- and 20th-century French art, and their Matisse collection of 42 paintings was one of the largest in the world. They left their collection of Matisses and works of many other noted artists to the BMA, along with $400,000 to build a wing to house it.

Mr. Berney's maternal grandmother was a sister of Claribel and Etta Cone, and in a memoir he recalled his many visits to the sisters' apartment.

He described Etta Cone as being very "Victorian" yet "warm and people-oriented," and Claribel Cone as "a dynamic personality" who had the odd habit, when attending Lyric concerts, of "buying two tickets: one to sit herself in and the other to park her wrap in."

He recalled the large and spacious apartment filled with "drawings, paintings on the walls, statues, bric-a-brac on the tables, tapestries and embroideries throughout, and always fresh flowers."

The Cone sisters were close friends of former Baltimorean Gertrude Stein, whose Paris salon they frequented during trips abroad. "When Gertrude Stein or her brothers ran short of cash, they were not above selling some of their artwork to the Cone sisters," he wrote.

"Many people found these works to be too avant-garde. Were these ladies really sound of mind to collect such bizarre art? Or was it really art?" he wrote.

Born and raised in Windsor Hills, Mr. Berney was a 1933 graduate of Park School and earned his bachelor's degree from Colgate University in 1937. During World War II, he was a medic with the 2nd General Hospital in Oxford, England.

He was a former president of the Charles Street Association, the Maryland Ballet and Friends of the Johns Hopkins University Libraries.

He was a former board member of the Jewish Historical Society and a former vice president of the Citizens Planning and Housing Administration and the local chapter of the National Conference of Christian and Jews.

Funeral plans were incomplete yesterday.

He is survived by his wife of 47 years, the former Ethel Weber; two sons, Dr. Bertram Berney of Eugene, Ore., and Brigham Berney of New York; three sisters, Helen Hirschland of Great Neck, N.Y., Alice Hoffberger of Baltimore and Margaret Mack of New Haven, Conn.; and two grandsons.

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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