Major art connoisseur’s works go on sale

by Isobel Leybold-Johnson

A sale of works that belonged to the late Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler, which include Picassos and a huge Monet, could fetch more than $50 million (SFr42 million).

Also represented at the auction, at Christie’s London on June 21-22, are smaller gems providing a more intimate picture of the life of Beyeler and his wife Hildy. The proceeds will benefit the Beyeler Foundation museum near Basel.

The auction will take place as part of Christie’s major Evening and Day sales of Impressionist and Modern art. It includes works from the Beyeler home, as well as paintings and sculptures from the couple’s business, the Galerie Beyeler, which is closing after more than 60 years.
Andreas Rumbler, Senior European Director at Christie’s, who is overseeing the Beyeler estate sale, said he expected interest from all over the world. “Ernst Beyeler was a major figure not only in Basel, but in the whole Swiss art trade, and then reaching out to the whole of Europe and the world – there is not one country to which Ernst Beyeler hasn’t sold,” he told “And it’s so exciting because it all happened out of a very small space which is Basel, arguably not the centre of the art world - it’s not London, New York or Paris – but his success in doing that out of a small city in Switzerland is even more extraordinary.”

A good eye

Beyeler opened his celebrated gallery in Baumleingasse, a quiet street in Basel, in 1945 and over the ensuring decades held more than 300 major exhibitions and sold more than 16,000 works of modern art.
His eye and sense of quality – especially for undervalued Picassos and Impressionists – were legendary. He knew many of the great 20th century artists personally, including Pablo Picasso and the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
As he prospered, he built up a formidable collection of post-Impressionist, Modern, Contemporary, African and Oceanic art.
"Art must touch you and leave a strong visual and mental impression upon you," Beyeler once said.
His major breakthrough as a dealer came in the early 1960s when he acquired 340 works from the collection of David Thompson in the United States, which included art by Cézanne, Klee, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Mondrian and Braque.
Beyeler was also involved in founding Art Basel, now the largest international fair of contemporary art, in the 1970s.

Museum in Riehen

In 1982 he and his wife created the Beyeler Foundation to which they donated their collection. Architect Renzo Piano designed a home for it in Riehen, near Basel, and the museum opened to the public in 1997. “We would hope to achieve in excess of $50 million in the sale order to help the Beyeler Foundation,” said Rumbler, who described the museum as being of exceptional quality. The sale and the distribution of the proceeds are being carried out according to Beyeler’s wishes set out in his will. He died on February 25, 2010 at age 88, two years after Hildy, whom Rumbler points out played a key role in Beyeler’s success. No works from the museum are being sold. The auction’s highlights include Monet’s Nymphéas, painted between 1916 and 1919, and Picasso’s Buste de Françoise, a great colorist portrait of 1946.

Also being sold are some more personal items like Wood Stabile by Alexander Calder, which always sat either on or beside Beyeler’s desk, and a Paul Klee watercolour, Parklandschaft, which hung above his bedside table in Basel for more than 50 years.

Mixed emotions

For Sam Keller, director of the Beyeler Foundation, the auction is tinged with both happiness and sadness.
“It is the end of an era. The Beyeler gallery has existed for more than 60 years and now it’s going to close,” Keller told
He said the Beyelers saw the museum as their legacy. “They wanted the proceeds of the sale to benefit the Beyeler Foundation, to help to secure its future and to contribute so that we can continue to do fantastic exhibitions and acquire work for the collection,” he said.
The latest exhibition is on two greats of modern sculpture, Constantin Brancusi and Richard Serra. Previous hits have included Basquiat and Giovanni Segantini’s alpine paintings.
Beyeler is still very much missed, said Keller, adding that the museum aimed to keep up his good work.
“We’re very happy that one year after Ernst left us people continue to come and support the museum,” he said. “That makes us happy and would make him happy.”