by Franck Barthelemy
Does this address ring a bell? For many of us, this was the world centre for modern and contemporary art, located in a quiet and posh street in Basel, right in the heart of the tiny Switzerland.
In 1940, the young Ersnt Beyeler, 19 year old, a student in commerce and art history at the local university, started working at 9 Bäumleingasse for Oskar Schloss, a well established antique dealer specialized in old books and manuscripts. The boss and mentor probably introduced Ernst to the art of appreciating drawings and prints, but most importantly to the pleasure of buying art.
1945 marked the beginning of one of the most exciting art adventure of the 20th century. Oskar Schloss died and Ernst Beyeler bought over his business. In 1947, he organized his first art exhibition. In 1948, he married Hildy and the couple transformed the quiet though successful business into a full-fledged art dealership. They organized impressionists and post-impressionists 'drawings' exhibitions, they put together a noted exhibition of prints by Toulouse-Lautrec. Ernst and Hildy are now gallerists and take the gallery to an undreamt level. In 1951, they gather their profits, borrow a bit of money from friends to purchase one of their major acquisition for four and a half thousand dollars: Improvisation 10 (1910) by Kandisky. They read, they travel, they visit studios, and they meet artists. Ernst becomes friends with Picasso and many of his contemporaries. With an unerring instinct, he develops an interest for modern art and realises how much it is undervalued. He picks up whatever he likes. Collectors come to the couple to sell their art works. The Beyeler's influence over the art market grows significantly. By the end of their careers, Hildy and Ernst had achieved 16,000 deals and organized over 300 exhibitions with the most beautiful and well done catalogues. Picasso once qualified Ernst 'the man of the catalogue'.
In 1959 Ernst strikes the deal of his career with G. David Thompson, the steel baron of Pittsburgh and starts acquiring the best pieces: 100 Klees, 80 Giacomettis, 340 works by Cézanne, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Miró, Mondrian, Braque and many more. Ernst's business flair made him a very rich man in hardly 15 years.
A few years later, he is invited to Mougins to meet Picasso. This is Ernst's second coup. After a cup of coffee, the artist sends him off to his warehouse, his private collection, and tells him he can select and buy whatever he wants. After a few hours alone in the sanctuary, Ernst comes out with a selection of about 40 works. Picasso lets him go with 26. A stock that would increase Ernst's authority over the booming modern art market. His very close friendship with the artist allowed him to organize 90 Oeuvres Sur Papier, an exhibition to celebrate Picasso's 90th birthday. And ten years later, Ernst celebrated Picasso 100th birth anniversary with probably the best retrospective ever organized based on his personal collection and (just) a few other's.
At 71, Ernst Beyeler's business flair strikes again. He meets Nina Kandinsky and buys from her about hundred canvases, watercolours and drawings.
Before being successful dealers, Ernst and Hildy were collectors.They used to keep, for their own pleasure, art works they could not sell and/or art works they liked a lot, sometimes for a short while, sometimes for a lifetime. In 1970, Ernst's passion encouraged him to set up ART, the Basel international art fair. In about twenty years, Ernst transformed the city of Basel's art festival into the not-to-be-missed-rendezvous of the art planet, known today as Art Basel.
Ernst and Hildy wanted to give back to the society in a way or another. In 1982, they created a foundation that could host their fabulous collection made with love and dedication over a period of 50 years. In 1989, for the first time, Jorge Semprun, the then Spanish Minister for Culture, invited the Beyelers to display their collection at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the Madrid contemporary art museum. The art world was buzzing and gossiping about the never seen before legendary collection. About 150 arts works were shown to the public. All master pieces to say the obvious. The public was thrilled, the Beyelers too. The success motivated them to start building a home for their collection under the ambit of their foundation. The Beyeler Museum designed by Renzo Piano opened in 1997 with about 150 master art pieces, mostly paintings: Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Miro, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Rothko, and Newman among many others. A journalist once asked Ernst at the opening: 'Why do you continue to deal with art?' 'In order to find another good painting, I am still a hunter, which was my pleasure for all these year', he replied. I believe Ernst proposed a perfect definition of a collector: an ever curious hunter, hunter for beauty, hunter for novelty, hunter for pleasure.
Ernst also believed strongly that a collection should be alive. Paintings should come and go. And sometimes come back (for instance, he bought, sold and bough back his cherished Improvisation 10). The collection expanded. Ernst and Hildy tried to complete it in such a way it could become a fair representation of Modern Art. They recently added Baselitz, Kiefer or Rauch.
Hildy and Ernst passed away respectively in 2008 and 2010. They decided their gallery should not survive them. In an upmost generous gesture, they donated their personal home collection plus the gallery collection to their Foundation. Christie's sold them in May this year to fetch about 70 million dollars, a treasure that will be used to pay for the Foundation debts and ensure its existence for many decades.
Over 50 years, Hildy and Ernst Beyeler built the largest and most significant modern art collection of the 20th century. What is today known as the Beyeler Foundation's collection hosts 230 arts works by 44 artists. The collection keeps growing as per the principle Ernst followed throughout his life: sell a painting to buy two. Sam Keller, the current director, and probably the couple's spiritual son, once added a second principle while sharing what he learnt from Ernst with the press: 'Ernst taught me how to watch'. Food for thought for many of us.