Ernst Beyeler dies at 88; Swiss art collector

Ernst Beyeler dies at 88; Swiss art collector
Ernst Beyeler, seen in 2004, became a widely respected art patron after World War II by acquiring hundreds of works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and others. (Gaetan Bally / European Pressphoto Agency)
Ernst Beyeler, whose early eye for undervalued Picassos and Impressionists helped him assemble one of Europe's most famous art collections, has died, his Beyeler Foundation said. He was 88.
Ernst Beyeler obituary: The obituary in Saturday's LATExtra section on Swiss art collector Ernst Beyeler identified William Rubin as a onetime Museum of Modern Art director. Rubin was director of the museum's painting and sculpture department. —

Beyeler died Thursday at his home near Basel, Switzerland, said the museum, which he created 13 years ago out of his sprawling gallery of masterpieces.

The son of a Swiss railway employee, Beyeler became a widely respected art patron after World War II by acquiring hundreds of works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and others.

Beyeler presented them to the public in his Basel gallery and later in the foundation he established near the German border.

His art collection eventually grew to a value of at least $1.85 billion, according to the Swiss finance magazine Bilanz, thanks to Beyeler's taste for quality and his personal connections with painters such as Georges Braque, Marc Chagall and Alberto Giacometti.

He also was a friend of Picasso.

Born July 16, 1921, in Basel, Beyeler discovered his passion for art after taking a job in an antiques shop shortly after World War II.

Beyeler then studied economics and art history at the University of Basel and started collecting Japanese woodcarvings.

In 1948, he married Hildy Kunz, who became a constant companion in his art business until she died in 2008. They had no children.

Together, they mounted numerous art exhibitions featuring modern classics in the 1950s, drawing on debts and even paying a $4,500 price in installments to make Wassily Kandinsky's masterpiece "Improvisation 10" his first major acquisition, in 1951.

In the 60 years since, more than 16,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures, including Picassos, Monets and Vincent van Goghs, changed hands at his Basel gallery.

The Kandinsky picture, which had been confiscated by Nazi Germany in 1937 as degenerate art, led to an out-of-court settlement between the Beyeler museum in the Swiss town of Riehen and the heirs of Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers, the rightful owner.

Jen Lissitzky, who inherited his mother's collection, tried in vain to recover the painting after he emigrated from Russia in 1989. Beyeler refused, saying he had bought the painting legally and in good faith.

But he eventually agreed to undisclosed compensation to keep the painting at the Beyeler museum.

Beyeler "had the guts and commitment to 'bet large' on the greatness of 20th-century modernism some years before it was 'consecrated' by the art market," one-time Museum of Modern Art director William Rubin wrote in 1997.

It was four decades earlier when Beyeler first met Picasso.

"One day he took me by the arm and said, 'Take your time to choose what you want. I will let you know then what I am willing to let go,' " Beyeler said, recounting for the Swiss weekly Schweizer Illustrierte how Picasso lent him 46 works for his Basel gallery in 1966.

"Among these were some great paintings," Beyeler said, adding that he acquired 26 of them in all.

Beyeler became the most influential patron in Switzerland, and in 1971 founded Basel's renowned international art fair, which continues today as one of the world's biggest draws for contemporary works.

After adding some 100 oil paintings, watercolors and drawings by Kandinsky to his collection in the 1970s, Beyeler created a foundation in 1982 with his wife.

He presented the collection of about 200 works of modern classics in Madrid, Berlin and Sydney, but then decided to build his own museum and enlisted star architect Renzo Piano.

The Beyeler Foundation opened its doors in 1997, presenting 140 works of modern classics, including 23 Picassos.

The culmination of Beyeler's career came in 2007 when all the works that passed through his hands were reunited at the museum for a grand exhibition that included Van Gogh's 1889 "Portrait of Postman Roulin," Roy Lichtenstein's "Plus and Minus III" and a huge, expressive drip painting by Jackson Pollock.