GENEVA (AP).- 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 Friday. He was 88.
Beyeler died Thursday evening at his home near Basel, said the museum, which he created 13 years ago out of his sprawling gallery of masterpieces.
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 2 billion Swiss francs ($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.
"Art must touch you and leave a strong visual and mental impression upon you," 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 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.
"There are pictures we always wanted to live with," Beyeler once said, adding that it gave him a better feeling than having money in the bank.
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. He kept the Kandinsky painting, and today it could fetch US$25 million at auction, according to published estimates.
Beyeler's success in the art trade lay mainly in buying such underrated works, from Monet's "Nymphs" and one of van Gogh's wheat fields to a Henri Rousseau painting of a "Hungry Lion Pouncing on an Antelope." When their prices increased dramatically, he was able to sell them at considerable profit.
The purchase of several hundred major art works from Pittsburgh collector David Thompson was one of Beyeler's biggest deals. He acquired between 1959 and 1965 some 100 works by Paul Klee, around 340 objects by Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Fernand Leger, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Braque and other major artists, as well as 80 Giacometti sculptures.
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 MoMA 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 chose 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. They included the masterpiece "Woman" that he forever kept.
In 1981 the Beyeler Gallery organized a comprehensive retrospective to mark the centenary of Picasso's birth. Beyeler also spearheaded successful exhibitions at the Basel art museum, becoming the most influential patron in Switzerland. In 1971 he was a founder of Basel's renowned international art fair that 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 together with his wife. He presented the collection of around 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.
A masterpiece of contemporary architecture, the museum is airy and affected by the soft colors, large windows and outdoor park with two ponds that create different shades of light and color as they reflect on artworks consciously placed on the walls of different rooms.
"I have always perceived works of art as parables of creation 'analogous to nature' as Cezanne once said as an expression of joie de vivre," Beyeler said at the museum's unveiling.
He continued to visit the museum and attend its special exhibitions of artists such as Cezanne, Monet, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko.
The culmination of his 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.
Increasingly frail but remaining energetic, Beyeler was seen by an Associated Press reporter in 2009 chatting with business partners in the museum's cafeteria. 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.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.