The Picasso Miracle of Basel

In 1967, the Swiss city of Basel was rocked by student protests. Their protest slogan was: "All You Need Is Pablo." The students were not protesting against something or everything, they were protesting for the acquisition of two pictures painted by Pablo Picasso. The protests were a turning point and moved voters in Basel to spend more than six million Swiss francs in public money. This legendary ballot led to a miraculous propagation of pictures by Pablo Picasso.

On 20 April 1967, a plane of Basel's Globe Air crashed and took 124 people to their deaths. The disaster led to the first grounding of a Swiss airline since air travel had started. The main shareholder of Globe Air, Peter A. Staechelin was held personally responsible had to meet all financial demands. Peter A. Staechelin didn't posses a lot of cash, but art worth millions was hanging in Basel's Art Museum. His father had moved the family's art collection into a foundation. The pictures could not be sold unless a family member got into severe financial distress. That moment had come.

When the family trust sold the first painting "La Berceuse" by Vincent van Gogh out of the country to the Unite States, Basel's art world went into collective shock. The sale of more paintings loomed over the Basel Art Museum. Among the paintings viewed for a possible sale were two important paintings by Pablo Picasso: "Arlequin assis" (1923) and "Les deux frères" (1905).

Franz Meyer was the director of the Art Museum Basel. He managed the extraordinary and brought Peter A. Staechelin, the government, and businesses to one table. They reached an agreement that the city would be able to buy the two paintings by Pablo Picasso for 8.4 million Swiss francs. The deal was that if the private sector would bring in 2.4 million, the remaining 6 million would be paid the city.

Basel's parliament passed the urgent motion in record time, but voters opposed the credit and asked for a public ballot. What followed was as unprecedented as it was unexpected. Basel's students and schoolchildren went on public strike and staged demonstrations and protests all over the city to fight for the purchase of the paintings. The protests expanded into a general movement and soon the whole city was on its feet. Even the local football (soccer) club FC Basel joined the protest and advertised the campaign with posters.

When it seemed that private donations might fall short of the targeted 2.4 million, citizens organised a public festival. they called it the beggars' festival with the sole aim of collecting money to buy the paintings. The credit was under contention to the last, but Basel's voters balloted in favour of the credit.

From his retirement home in Mougins in the South of France, Pablo Picasso had followed the events closely. Angela Rosengart, the present director of the Museum Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, was a friend of Pablo Picasso. She and her father, the art dealer Siegfried Rosengart, often staid with the artist on visits. She still remembers how they reported Picasso about the events in Basel on a daily basis. The student protests and the fact that the people had voted in a ballot to purchase his pictures inspired the painter.

Pablo Picasso invited Franz Meyer to Mougins. He was asked to select a picture for the Basel collection. Franz Meyer could not make up his mind which picture would be appropriate. He finally asked Picasso to put two pictures side by side, so as to be able to make a choice. Pablo Picasso's wife Jacqueline intervened and pointed out that the two pictures belonged together anyway. She told Pablo Picasso to give both pictures to Basel, and he agreed.

Ina final gesture, Pablo Picasso added another painting and a sketch to it. Franz Meyer returned to Basel with three paintings and the sketch of one of the most famous works of Pablo Picasso's: "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." The four paintings were donate by Pablo Picasso explicitly to the "Jeunesse de Bâle" (Youths of Basel) that had taken to the street for his art.

The grand dame of the Basel art world and patron of the arts Maja Sacher was so impressed by Pablo Picasso's generosity, she bought a further painting of the cubist phase of him and donated it to the Art Museum. And that is why the Basel Art Museum has one of the most important collections of paintings by Pablo Picasso. Strictly speaking, though, four of them are on permanent loan to it by the youths of Basel.

Further reading

Museum City: Basel
Cheating Hermann Goering
Corsair, Painter, Writer: Ambroise Louis Garneray