As an art dealer, collector and museum founder, the man who died in 2010 was one of the most important protagonists of commercial and museum art education far beyond the borders of his Basel homeland.
The name Ernst Beyeler (1921-2010) is associated with some of the most spectacular art dealerships in history. The founding of the world’s leading art fair Art Basel, which he helped initiate in 1969, is just one of many chapters. In 1997 the dealer, who had advanced to become a great collector, opened the most successful art museum in Switzerland, the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen BS.
The path to becoming a “seigneur des arts”, as the French newspaper “Le Figaro” once called him, was not straightforward. Rather, it was an interplay of love, luck and chance, paired with a high degree of intuition and willingness to take risks.
It all began in 1945 when the son of a railway clerk took over the antiquarian bookshop he was employed at after the owner’s death. He stood in front of a mountain of debt until he discovered a valuable graphic portfolio with works by Goya in the store’s inventory, which he was able to sell to the Kunsthaus Zürich.
Merchant luck with Klee and Giacometti
This willingness to take risks led him to two more lucky hits that made headlines around the world. Both were related to the person of the steel tycoon G. David Thompson from Pittsburgh USA.
In 1959 Beyeler took over 104 works by Paul Klee from Thompson’s collection. He was taking a financial risk, but it paid off. In 1960 he was able to resell 86 of these works to the then newly founded Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf.
In 1962 there was a second, similar trick, when Beyeler took over Thompson’s large Giacometti collection with 61 sculptures, 7 paintings and 21 drawings. In agreement with Alberto Giacometti, the art dealer wanted to prevent the collection from being torn apart. But it took five years until the newly established Giacometti Foundation finally found a buyer.
Slow-moving items as the cornerstones of the collection
By the time his legendary gallery on Bäumleingasse was closed, around 16,000 works of art had passed through Beyeler’s hands. Long before he became an art collector himself, he contributed to the establishment of many important private and museum collections.
At the beginning of his own collection there were pictures for which he could not find any buyers – which is difficult to understand given the status these works have. Claude Monet’s epoch-making water lily triptych “Le Bassin aux nymphéas” is one such example. For years, the art dealer remained seated on the nine-meter-wide work that he had presented in three exhibitions.
Finally he decided to keep it, he wrote in the first collection catalog. He had thought about opening his own museum – an idea that was still a distant one at the time – otherwise “the picture would no longer be in my collection”.
The frustration of dealers developed a passion for collecting, to which Beyeler’s wife Hildy also made a significant contribution. In a text from 1989 he quoted his Parisian colleague Alexandre Bernheim as saying: “Les clients qui m’achètent me font vivre, ceux qui ne m’achètent pas m’enrichissent” (“The customers who buy from me make it possible my life, those who don’t buy enrich me »).
With the establishment of his foundation in 1982 and finally his museum, which he was director until 2003, Beyeler carried this enrichment far beyond himself. With his own museum, Beyeler deviated from his original plans to donate his collection to the Basel Art Museum.
In the museum building designed by Renzo Piano, not only the 400 or so works from the collection of impressionism, classical modernism and the present can be seen. With regular special exhibitions, Beyeler ensured that his Fondation became a crowd puller right from the start.
“Ernst Beyeler used to say: ‘We are not afraid of success'”, says today’s museum director Sam Keller. Since 2008, he has carried on the legacy of the museum’s founder, who died in 2010 at the age of 88, in this sense.