A Gambler with Guts

A new book recounts how Ernst Beyeler became one of the world’s most powerful modern-art dealers

Beyeler in the Wintergarten of the Fondation Beyeler.


Many years ago, a woman walked into the Galerie Beyeler in Basel, stopped in front of a Kandinsky and said, “Oh, what a beautiful painting!”

Ernst Beyeler, the owner, went over to her. She asked him how much it cost.

“Twenty-eight thousand francs,” he replied.

“I should like to buy it. Who painted it?”


“Who’s he?”

Beyeler told her about Kandinsky.

“Oh. Good. And this watercolor?”

“It costs 25,000 francs.”

“I’ll buy it. Who did it?”

“They are ‘Bathers’ by Cézanne.”

“Oh, and who is Cézanne?”

Beyeler gave her some background about Cézanne.

“And this painting?”

“It costs 35,000 francs.”

“I’ll buy it. Who did it?”

“It’s by Gauguin.”

“And who is Gauguin?” He explained and she bought it. Then he asked a few questions, and learned that she had made a living ironing in Winterthur until she inherited a great deal of money. She had enough to live on and wanted to do something with her savings.

“She was touching and naive at the same time,” Beyeler recalled. A few years later she returned to the gallery and asked the dealer to take the paintings back. She liked them but needed the money. She had continued to buy art, blindly trusting some dealers, and ran up sizable debts. Beyeler bought back the Cézanne and Gauguin and offered her almost twice as much for the Kandinsky. She agreed.

The moral of the story? Beyeler said, “There are in fact two. The first is to rely on your own instincts when you buy art. And the second is always to be highly demanding about quality.”

The woman is one of the fascinating characters in Ernst Beyeler: A Passion for Art, Interviews by Christophe Mory, which was recently published in English by Scheidegger & Spiess. This is a wonderful book filled with anecdotes about collectors and artists and candid observations about art dealing.

Beyeler, the son of a Swiss railroad employee, was born in Basel. He started his career in an antiquarian book-and-print shop with what he said was 6,000 francs in debts and went on to become one of the world’s most powerful dealers of modern art. He died last year at the age of 88 at his home in Riehen, Switzerland. He established the Beyeler Museum in 1997 in Riehen and with his wife, Hildy, gave the museum some 220 works by many distinguished artists.

The list included Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Vincent van Gogh, Cézanne, Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko, and Anselm Kiefer. In addition there were sculptures from Africa, Alaska, and Oceania.

Beyeler gambled fairly often in buying collections, but the risk usually paid off. Once, “although I was up to my ears in debt,” he bought 90 Giacomettis from the late G. David Thompson, the Pittsburgh steel tycoon. “Thompson was not easy to deal with,” Beyeler said. “He mastered the whole gamut of negotiating tactics: gentleness, charm, tricks, bluff, passionate enthusiasm, loud laughter, penetrating gazes.” Beyeler also bought from Thompson 100 works by Paul Klee and about 340 other paintings and sculptures.

The late William S. Rubin, director of the Department of Paintings and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, once said that Beyeler had the “guts and commitment to ‘bet large,’ so to say, on the greatness of 20th-century modernism some years before it was consecrated by the art market.”

Beyeler was particularly close to Picasso and Giacometti. He said: “Meeting Picasso was very dangerous! He had this enormous power to divert artists from their own intentions. Some, like Fernand Léger, for example, resisted, but others were paralyzed, like Derain, who lavished more time on women, beautiful cars, and good food than on cultivating what was a genuine talent.

”Picasso listened with interest to Giacometti, who was exactly 20 years his junior, and they remained in contact for around ten years despite their differences. When Giacometti spoke of the truth, Picasso answered: ‘There is not one truth; there are a hundred possibilities.’ The truth bored Picasso. Just as he would leave a woman when he became bored with her, so he refrained from dwelling on metaphysical questions.”

Beyeler said that Giacometti’s mother was an impressive woman who played an important role in the artist’s life: “On one of my visits, she asked him, ‘Why do you always paint in grey and why don’t you sculpt women with a few more curves?’

”He replied with a wink: ‘My sculptures always start out with curves but they grow thin as I work on them. I paint with intense colors but they end up grey.’

“He sought to capture the essence of human existence. One might think that he always represented the same figures—above all, his brother Diego, and his wife Annette. Yet Annette and Diego in fact stand for all women and all men, for human existence in our times. They are representatives of a new mythology.”

On money and artists, Beyeler said: “Artists always give the impression of not being interested in money, but I can assure you they are very tough about it, as an anecdote about Marc Chagall demonstrates. An American had come to buy some of his works. Chagall told him in a very detached way that he didn’t handle such matters and that the collector should negotiate with his wife. He therefore started negotiating with her but he could see in a mirror that the painter was gesticulating to her to tell her what to charge. There’s nothing wrong with that. All artists are concerned with money.”

He admitted that he had bought fakes. “An art dealer who won’t admit to having had fakes in his hands is dishonest,” he said. He added that it happened to him only occasionally.

Christophe Mory, a journalist, novelist, playwright, and staff member of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, is a skillful interviewer who was not reluctant to ask questions about which artists Beyeler neglected and became more important than he originally thought (Léger), which artists “got imprisoned in their language” (Dubuffet, Bernard Buffet, and Georges Mathieu), and the rise of art prices.

Did Beyeler feel that he had directly or indirectly contributed to the increase in art prices?

He replied: “To the same extent as everyone else! The logic of the market is such that it was first private individuals and then art dealers who pushed up prices and who benefited from them. You will notice that, in the end, record prices were always caused by private collectors. It is true that prices may rise to high levels but what counts in the end is the work. I have always salved my conscience by selling first-class works. You can cheat on the price but you can’t cheat on quality, because that alone imposes itself. Buying a mediocre work cuts you off from later transactions that are enriching in every sense of the word.”

Mory also asked: “What criteria do you apply when selecting a painting? What gives a painting its power?”

Beyeler said: “First of all, I have to feel fascination. My eyes, my mind, and my whole body have to be caught up in the experience. I have always relied on a kind of instinct that has become more acute over the years because I have viewed and scrutinized so many paintings, examining their harmony and the role of color. . . . A work evokes a response in me and I can identify with it. For me, the two crucial criteria are originality and freshness. However, a picture stands the test of time if it evolves as you do. Time is the best judge. Freshness does not age. It is oriented toward the future.”

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