ART MARKET / A Swiss dealer and his role: Ernst Beyeler has offered a museum and his superb collection of modern art to his home town. Geraldine Norman meets him as the people of Riehen prepare to vote yea or nay

ON JUNE 6 the Swiss community of Riehen, situated between Basel and the German frontier, is to hold a referendum to decide whether it wants a new museum. Dr Ernst Beyeler, 72, one of the world's leading dealers in 20th-century art, who has had a house in Riehen since 1951 and runs a gallery in Basel, has offered the small community a purpose-built museum containing his own private collection.

He has commissioned a design from Renzo Piano, the avant-garde architect who worked with Richard Rogers on the Pompidou Centre, to use to the full the superb mountain site and its views. The art collection contains major Cubist works by both Picasso and Braque, Kandinsky and Klee abstracts, half a dozen Mondrians documenting his switch from figurative to abstract art, Dubuffet, Rothko, Francis Bacon and lots of Giacometti. Mostly Beyeler has followed the taste of the art market; these are the most expensive 20th- century paintings money can buy.

A personal note is struck by his choice of works by artists he knew. Late Picasso is strongly represented - he met the artist in the 1960s. The strong Giacometti showing reflects his protracted manoeuvres to set up an Alberto Giacometti Foundation, while the unexpected presence of several white abstractions by Mark Tobey commemorates the artist's long stay in Basel, where he and Beyeler were friends. There is also a small collection of top quality primitive art.

Ernst Beyeler is tall and shy. His approach to connoisseurship is rigidly intellectual. He likes to quote Leger's comment: 'The pretty is the enemy of the beautiful.' He has lots of early Cubist Legers - the most expensive kind, of course. 'He may have the looks of an elderly ski instructor,' one of his competitors told me. 'But don't underestimate him. He has a razor- sharp business brain.'

The vote on his museum is a very Swiss affair. At every level of local and national government, Swiss democracy requires that if a sufficient number of signatures can be collected challenging a government policy, the people should be allowed to vote. That's how the nation threw out membership of the EC. Now 1,100 citizens of Riehen are petitioning for their park not to be contaminated by a modern art museum, and a referendum has to be held.

The signatures reflect two distinct groups of objectors. The park already contains the world's only

cat museum. Cat lovers fear Dr Beyeler's art will distract attention from their institution. More practical locals fear it will attract too many tourists, thereby causing both traffic jams and parking problems.

Last week, an exhibition of highlights from the Beyeler collection opened at the National Gallery,

Berlin - the former National Gallery of West Berlin, that is, a museum devoted to 19th and 20th-century art, housed in a glass and metal box designed by Mies van der Rohe. I went and talked to Dr Beyeler while he was hanging his pictures.

Ernst Beyeler is admired and feared on both sides of the Atlantic; even a few Japanese connoisseurs seek him out. Though not many; generally the Japanese prefer 'pretty pictures'. He has made so much money out of art dealing that, should he so wish, he can outbid anyone at auction, and he and his wife have no children to inherit. His private collection, registered as a non-profit foundation since the early 1980s, expanded

dramatically during the market boom at the end of the decade. 'Profits got so large at that time that giving money to the foundation was my salvation,' he said. Money donated to the foundation could be deducted from income before tax was calculated. Beyeler and his wife moved their official residence back from Riehen to Basel to take advantage of this tax break.

Beyeler was born in 1921, the youngest of five sons of a Swiss railway administrator. There was no art tradition in the family. During the Second World War he was required to do military service - but in Switzerland that was a very part-time affair. He managed to combine it with following courses at Basel University - he never bothered with a degree but got an honorary doctorate in 1986 - and working for a German-Jewish refugee book and print dealer, Oskar Schloss. 'I used to work through the night - also in the day, sometimes, when I could get the time.'

Schloss's knowledge of early printing and graphics was a formative influence. When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1945 his heirs begged Beyeler to continue the business. He took it on but soon bought out the Schloss interest and shifted his focus from books to art. His first exhibition was devoted to Japanese prints. 'I draped a cloth over the book shelves and hung up the prints,' he told me. 'Then I had little shows of Impressionist and modern graphics. Soon I realised a dealer must specialise - otherwise he buys fakes.'

Beyeler shifted definitively from book dealing to art in 1951. And

he decided to specialise in 20th-

century art, since there had been fewer opportunities for fakers to get down to work. His ticket to

the big time was provided by an American collector called David Thompson; a Pittsburgh steel millionaire, shunned by other dealers because he was so tough to deal with. 'He had the best collection of 20th-century art in America,' Beyeler remembers. 'He knew he was dying and wanted to sell the collection before it happened.'

Beyeler took the gamble of a lifetime, borrowing to the hilt to buy the collection: first, in 1960, 100 Klee paintings which he subsequently sold to the Dusseldorf Museum; then, later in the same year, he bought 250 mixed masterpieces, including Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and many others. Beyeler sent them off on a museum tour, taking in Zurich, Dusseldorf, the Hague, New York (the Guggenheim) and Turin; then he took them back to Basel and sold them. Finally, in 1962, he got Thompson's 70 Giacomettis. The Swiss-born sculptor was not significantly represented in Swiss museums and Beyeler persuaded Giacometti admirers to form a Giacometti Foundation, buy the works and lend them to the Zurich and Basel museums.

'In the early days, I thought I would have to move my gallery to a capital city. It is difficult to persuade clients to come to a small gallery in a small street in a small town,' he says. But putting on shows with superbly-produced catalogues proved to be the answer; he mounted more than 200 exhibitions, often borrowing pictures from museums and private collectors. Everyone came. The catalogues so impressed Picasso that he allowed Beyeler to choose anything he wanted from his store - the dealer came away with 27 paintings in one coup. When he exhibited 90 drawings to celebrate Picasso's 90th birthday, the artist was so taken with the idea that he instructed him to show 100 sculptures for his 100th. 'But he didn't live long enough for me to hold it,' Beyeler says sadly.

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