From antiquarian bookshop to the Fondation Beyeler

In 1952, Ernst Beyeler and his wife Hildy renamed their antiquarian bookshop at Bäumleingasse 9 in Basel "Galerie Beyeler," thus laying the foundation for a unique career. This led to the establishment of the Beyeler Foundation in 1982 and culminated in the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, now one of the world's most important and beautiful art museums.


The beginnings in the antiquarian bookshop

The early lives of Ernst and Hildy Beyeler gave no indication that they were destined for outstanding careers as art dealers. It was more by chance that Ernst Beyeler, then still a student, landed a job with Oskar Schloss at his print and antiquarian bookshop, “La Librairie du Château d’Art,” at Bäumleingasse 9 in Basel. Oskar Schloss had been one of the pioneer publishers of Buddhist texts. Having been robbed of his fortune by the Nazis, he was able to flee from Germany to Switzerland, where he made a living in his later years with a small antiquarian bookshop. For Ernst Beyeler, these were formative years, with Oskar Schloss informally initiating his staff into literature, philosophy, and art in the evenings.

After the untimely death of his employer in 1945, Ernst Beyeler was able to take over the debt-ridden shop – and its debts – with the financial support of his future wife Hildy Kunz. However, antique books and the demands of the business were not what the young Beyeler was looking for. It is no surprise therefore that he devoted increasing attention to the graphic arts, such as lithographs by Honoré Daumier, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, or Japanese woodblocks. The name "Ernst Beyeler" was added to the shop in 1947, and in 1952 the name was changed to “Galerie Beyeler.” The foundation for a unique career had been laid. But one thing remained from those early antiquarian years: the love of beautifully designed catalogs.

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The Galerie Beyeler set standards

It was impressive how consistently the business grew. Initially, and undoubtedly under the influence of art historian and museum expert Georg Schmidt, the Galerie Beyeler was clearly focused on German art. The most important Expressionist painters were well represented at Beyeler’s, as were Käthe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch, Alexej von Jawlensky, supplemented by masterpieces of French graphic art of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the beginning, even works by contemporary and local artists, including some artist friends, were represented.

The first small catalogs, “Bilder des 20. Jahrhunderts” and “Tableaux français,” came out in 1952 and 1953 and were rooted in the tradition of inventory catalogs of graphic art. The selection and artistic quality set a benchmark that brooked no compromise. Beyeler’s goal was to become one of the leading players in the art world, and he boldly followed his own convictions. Art should be substantive, it should be an enduring source of pleasure, and it should stand the test of time. A preference for art that was not too ordinary and not immediately pleasing became apparent quite early.

The 1950s were marked by an ambitious expansion of the gallery, with French painting increasingly setting the tone. Dealing in art functioned according to a simple rule of thumb: for every work sold, two new ones were bought. Ernst Beyeler began to travel more often. Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne, and Paris were his main destinations. He attended the London auctions with increasing regularity. In Basel, Hildy Beyeler oversaw the finances and managed the small staff. By the late 1950s, the gallery in the Bäumleingasse was no longer a tip only for insiders. In addition to the local clientele, more and more Americans made a detour from Paris to the gallery's promising summer exhibitions. The catalog series "Maîtres de l'art moderne (1955-1958)" bears witness to this.

The art dealer becomes a museum director

The sphere of business grew to include North America and Ernst Beyeler met G. David Thompson of Pittsburgh, who first appeared as a client and later sold his legendary collection of modern art. He was regarded as a notoriously unpredictable collector and attracted a great deal of attention in the art world. In buying his collection, Ernst Beyeler gained the respect of prestigious New York galleries. He then sold complete groups of works from the Thompson Collection to museums, establishing a reputation that would open doors from that point on. He received great acclaim for placing a group of works by Klee in Düsseldorf and Giacometti sculptures in the specially founded Giacometti Foundation in Zurich. Beyeler the art dealer proved his credentials as a museum curator long before his own collection began to take shape.As the broker of major art deals, Ernst Beyeler became a friend to many museums. He later gave the impulse for entire exhibitions and actively supported them.

For all his fame, he did not forget his modest beginnings. The challenging quality of a work of art remained the most important thing. He shared this love generously with his clients, visitors, and later with his museum staff. He never lost sight of the essentials, nature, inner balance, and political and ecological aspects. The hustle and bustle of the city never penetrated into the rooms at Bäumleingasse, which had a medieval modesty that let art have center stage.

Establishment of the foundation and construction of the Fondation Beyeler

Ernst and Hildy Beyeler assembled a collection of fine works of classical modernism over fifty years, parallel to their work as successful gallery owners. The Collection was converted into a Foundation in 1982, and in 1989 it was publicly exhibited for the first time in its entirety at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. The collection won international acclaim and the collector couple went on to expand it with great care.

The foundation marked the birth of the idea of building a museum. Ernst Beyeler was looking for a suitable place and found it in his hometown of Riehen: the grounds of the Villa Berower offered the desired connection to nature and seemed made for the construction of a museum that would harmoniously unite architecture, art, and nature. Beyeler commissioned Renzo Piano without a competition for the construction of the Fondation Beyeler museum, which was opened on October 18, 1997.

Ernst Beyeler acted as director of the Fondation Beyeler until 2003. Christoph Vitali took over in 2003, then Sam Keller in 2008 and until today. Ernst Beyeler passed away in 2010, two years after the death of his wife Hildy.