COLOGNE—One of the world’s most important art collections still in private hands, the legendary Niarchos collection, has been given in large part to the Kunsthaus Zürich on long-term loan. After its complete renovation and reopening in September, the paintings will become part of the permanent collection of Switzerland’s most important museum, ARTnewsletter has learned.
Kunsthaus Zürich director Christoph Becker informed the general assembly of the Züricher Kunstgesellschaft (the society that runs the Kunsthaus) on May 30 about the “accession of another private collection, parts of which—for instance, works by Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso—are already on loan to the Kunsthaus.” Becker declined to identify the lenders, noting that they wish to remain anonymous. ARTnewsletter has learned from sources close to the situation that the works are from the Niarchos collection.
Though the exact number loaned to the institution has not been disclosed, the Niarchos collection as a whole is estimated to be worth more than $250 million. Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, already at Kunsthaus Zürich, would bring about $75 million at auction, experts say. (In a November 2003 story in ARTnews, “The Most Wanted Works of Art,” casino mogul Steve Wynn called Self Portrait a work he would like to own.)
In the mid-1950s Greek shipping magnate Stavros Spyros Niarchos (1910-1996) began collecting artworks for his homes in Athens and Paris, London and St. Moritz. The trove includes hundreds of major works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, El Greco, Paul Gauguin, Francisco Goya, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Niarchos amassed part of his fortune in 1956. Egypt closed the Suez Canal, but he and other Greek ship owners were able to circle tankers of oil from the Middle East around the Cape of Good Hope to Europe and America.
He acquired the core of his trove, about 60 paintings, in February 1957 for about $3 million through New York’s Knoedler Galleries. The collection came from actor Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973), who had to sell the works in order to cover the costs of his divorce from his first wife, Gladys.
In 1958-59 an exhibition of 72 works from the Niarchos collection traveled internationally to venues including Knoedler Galleries, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Tate Gallery, London, and Kunsthaus Zürich. This was the last time that Niarchos was identified as the owner.
In the ensuing years Niarchos rarely loaned pictures for exhibitions. One exception was about five works he loaned to the major 1990 van Gogh retrospective at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, to commemorate the 100th year of the artist’s death.
Niarchos owned the largest private collection of works by van Gogh, including his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, and Wheatfield with Cypresses. (Another version of Wheatfield was bought for a reported $57 million in 1993 by the late Walter Annenberg from the Swiss Buehrle family for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.) Among other van Gogh works is a portrait of an art dealer, Julien “Père” Tanguy.
In May 1989 Niarchos successfully bid $47.85 million for Picasso’s self-portrait Yo Picasso at Sotheby’s. Shortly before his death he also acquired the artist’s large 1905 gouache Acrobate and Young Harlequin, one of the most important works from Picasso’s blue period. The Japanese firm Mitsukoshi had previously paid £20.9 million for it at Christie’s London in 1988. From time to time Niarchos also sold works such as Guitar Lesson, by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908-2001), or Picasso’s madonna-like portrait Maternité, sold at Christie’s in London for £13.7 million in 1989.
During his lifetime Niarchos was closely connected with Kunsthaus Zürich; the museum cared for parts of his collection and from time to time received single works on loan. A curator, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers, “The [van Gogh] Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear was hanging in the living room of his chalet in St. Moritz.” According to this source, whenever Niarchos was staying there—even for just a few nights—he had the painting flown in by helicopter.
Niarchos died in 1996. Some of his artworks were loaned to Kunsthaus Zürich. Those loans, which were labeled “Private Collection,” included two van Gogh pictures—his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Portrait of the French Peasant Patience Éscalier, the two Picassos and a Cézanne. Loan requests from the Van Gogh Museum in 2001 for the exhibit “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South” were declined because of disagreements among the heirs, a source says.
Four years ago, after the heirs’ legal battle was finished, eight works by Pierre Bonnard, Eugène Boudin, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Renoir, Georges Rouault and Maurice Utrillo, identified as from a “private collection,” were sold for more than $10 million at Christie’s.
Niarchos’ son Philip, based in London, is known to be an active buyer of contemporary art, buying works by Maurizio Cattelan, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.
Kunsthaus director Becker declines to discuss details of the loan contract. In general, he says, such contracts usually run for at least two years in Zurich: “After 80 years one should control their legal status. And it is often with loans from families or foundations, that parts of their collection remain with them privately.” Becker declined to reveal the names of individual works given to the museum. Rupert Burgess, London-based curator of the Niarchos collection, also declines to discuss the matter, saying, “We never discuss what we are doing.”
Becker told the general assembly of the “Züricher Kunstgesellschaft that several other major museums had competed for the private collection. ARTnewsletter has learned that the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, and the Getty Center, Los Angeles, were involved in the negotiations.