A chat with a baron who swaps art with Moscow

THE BARON'S Impressionist paintings go missing for months on end. Some of his art works are gone for so long, he says, that ``it's like buying them new again'' when they return. ``It's quite an excitement,'' he confides during a Monitor interview in London.

Few private art collections are as well known to the public as that of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. It's the most public of private collections. Much of it is on permanent public display at the baron's home-cum-museum, the Villa Favorita on the shores of Lake Lugano in Switzerland. But portions of it regularly appear in exhibitions all over the world.

Although the term ``connoisseur'' has become somewhat debased through overuse, it cannot fail to apply to the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. He is everything a connoisseur should be, and has everything a connoisseur should have. He is elegant, charming, and witty - in short, urbane. He possesses immense wealth, taste, and knowledge. The baron is a connoisseur in the grand manner, and it comes as something of a surprise that such a phenomenon is not a thing of the past.

The baron owns not only one of the most important collections of old master paintings in private hands, but has augmented it with significant collections of 19th-century and modern European and American pictures, ballet designs, oriental carpets, gold boxes, and Renaissance jewels and works of art.

Along the way, he has also acquired an impressive fund of knowledge. He speaks with authority of artists and schools of painting in both Europe and America of every period, and follows keenly the results of the researches that are conducted at his private museum in Lugano.

There the latest photographic technology is used to reveal paintings and drawings that famous artists painted over. The technology allows art researchers to see beneath the finished surfaces and, thus, to understand - and to compare - artists' techniques. The baron recently donated similar photographic equipment to the Vatican Museum.

The baron has been a familiar figure at the highest level of the art market for so long that he has built up a huge repertoire of anecdotes, relished sometimes at the expense of other famous collectors. ``Did you hear,'' he asks, about so-and so? (The Baron names the curator of an important public gallery.) ``He bought what he thought was a `Holbein,' but it turned out to be only a `Halfbein'!'' (One of the baron's most important pictures is a superb - and undisputed - Holbein portrait of Henry VIII.)

Whenever an important auction of old or modern masters comes up, the art world whispers: Will the baron compete for another top-dollar acquisition? A man who reputedly spends about $10 million annually on works of art is bound to attract some attention, and the baron has never been short of publicity. His private life has appeared in public quite as much as his collection.

A highly personal collection BUT in spite of its high profile, the collection remains very private - and indeed, very personal.

It is said that his fabled collection ranks second only to the British Royal Collection, both in terms of important works of art in private hands and of the art-loving public. But the two collections have little else in common, and the Baron believes his holdings are incomparable.

One of the most distinctive features of his collection is its scope. Few collectors interested in works of the past have taken as keen an interest in the works of their own time as the baron, who has frequently been in the vanguard of taste.

The baron is indebted to his father, Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, for both the foundation of the collection and his interest in works of art. His father's audacious ambition was to illustrate the development of European art by assembling significant examples of the works of the major artists in painting and sculpture, and, to a lesser degree, through objets d'art. This he largely achieved in about a quarter century and left his by then famous collection in trust to his elder son.

But the future of the collection was by no means assured. Members of the family broke the trust and the collection was split up. Fired with the determination to reassemble his father's collection, the baron began to buy back as many of the works as possible. In the process, he caught his father's passion for collecting.

Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the collection, so much of the present baron's time is spent in plugging holes. This is now no easy task. ``I don't have a really good Raphael, and no Leonardo. But I could not afford them now even if they became available.''

But the baron wasn't content just to follow in his father's footsteps.

Rebelling against his forebear's avowed distaste for modern pictures, he began to collect the works of the German Expressionists in the late 1940s. The timing is significant, since the Expressionists were then despised in Germany (where Expressionist works were reviled by the Nazis as ``degenerate art'') and were considered avant-garde in the art world.

``Modern pictures require a dialogue,'' he says. ``You have to put something in of yourself.''

He finds that this approach helps him to appreciate the old masters more. ``They are really quite modern,'' he explains. ``The original drawing beneath the painted surface of a Hans Memling or a Jan van Eyck is just as free and vital as anything in this century.''

The baron's purchases are largely guided by instinct. He says that he tries to avoid falling into the trap of an academic approach to collecting - of buying a work only because it fills a gap. But it is not easy.

``Knowledge begins to cloud the instinct,'' he says, ``and only 50 percent is personal taste.''

He has one key requirement when buying a new work: He must feel an interaction between himself and the picture. If he experiences no instinctive thrill, he does not buy.

The baron's father acquired the Villa Favorita at Castagnola in 1932, and installed his old masters in specially built galleries. In 1947, his son, faced with the task of recovering and reviving the industrial empire decimated by war, opened the galleries to the public, at first to avoid a 15 percent wealth tax. Thus began his remarkable policy of making his works available to the public.

``It's nice to own them,'' he says, ``but they were not painted for me; they are for everyone.'' A new gallery for the modern works is to be started this year designed by British architects, James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates, who won an international competition for the design of the gallery.

Swapping with the Soviets SUCH is the reputation of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection - and the persuasive powers of its owner - that Soviet Union in 1983 entered into an unprecedented reciprocal lending arrangement with the baron. In exchange for 40 of the baron's finest old masters an equal number of the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works from two Russian museums were sent for exhibition at the Villa Favorita, many seen for the first time in the West.

A sequel to this has been arranged this year. From Aug. 9 to Nov. 15, 40 more works from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, and the Hermitage, Leningrad, will be on view at the villa, while more of the baron's old masters will appear in the two Soviet museums.

Meanwhile, the baron is preparing for the collection's future. He has, as a first step, secured the agreement of his four children, none of whom are collectors, to waive their rights to inherit the Villa Favorita and that part of the collection it contains. The value of the inheritance is almost incalculable. Perhaps $1 billion is not an exaggeration. The next step is to form a foundation to manage the museum and to persuade the Swiss government to take on the responsibility for its upkeep.

It is to be hoped that the baron's inimitable style will be preserved as well as his incomparable collection.

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