GENEVA // Ernst Beyeler, whose early eye for undervalued Picassos and Impressionists helped him assemble one of Europe's most famous art collections, has died, according to his Beyeler Foundation. He was 88. Mr Beyeler died on Thursday evening at his home near Basel, said a secretary for the museum he created 13 years ago out of his sprawling gallery of masterpieces. She confirmed local media reports about Mr Beyeler's death. Mr Beyeler, the son of a Swiss railway employee, 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.
He presented them to the public in his Basel gallery and later in the foundation he founded near the German border. His art collection eventually grew to a value of at least two billion Swiss francs (about Dh6.7bn) 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.
"Art must touch you and leave a strong visual and mental impression upon you," Mr Beyeler once said in an interview with Swiss weekly magazine NZZ Folio. Born on July 16, 1921, in Basel, Beyeler discovered his passion for art after taking a job in an antique shop shortly after World War II. He then studied economics and art history at the University of Basel and started collecting Japanese woodcarvings.
He exhibited his woodcarvings in 1947, showing an early understanding for what separated quality from tried and trite artwork. In his exhibitions, he sought to give paintings and sculptures enough space to have an impact on the viewer so that art and observer could interact with each other, rejecting the old-fashioned museum approach of stuffing as many works into a little room as possible. In 1948, he married Hildy Kunz, who became a constant companion in his art business until she died in 2008. Together, they mounted numerous art exhibitions featuring modern classics.
Recently, Mr Beyeler had become increasingly frail but remained energetic. In his last years, he set up a foundation to direct part of the gains of his museum to protecting tropical forests. Funeral arrangements were not immediately known. * AP