Major art collection ends exile and returns to Basel

One of the works is this Chagall selfportrait. Art Museum Basel

The “exile” of one of Switzerland’s most important private collections of classic modern art has ended with its return to its original home in Basel.

For nearly a decade, the Im Obersteg collection had been tucked away in the village of Oberhofen on Lake Thun in canton Bern.

For visitors, this lakeside setting could hardly have been more picturesque: a handsome old house next to a 12th century castle, and with breathtaking views of the mountains of the Bernese Oberland.

But unfortunately the residence didn’t meet the requirements of the major works by Picasso, Chagall and Jawlensky.

Inadequate air-conditioning meant that everything had to be put in storage during the winter months, and the public was unable to see such classics as Picasso’s “Absinthe Drinker”, Chagall’s three “Portraits of Jews” and a group of 30 outstanding works by Jawlensky.

Add to these sculptures and paintings by Rodin, Cézanne, Hodler, Kandinsky, Klee, Modigliani – to mention just a few – and you have a treasure trove of 20th century classic modernism which clearly deserved to be on view to a much wider public.

Family collection

That is why Doris Im Obersteg, the widow of the man who started the collection, and the Im Obersteg foundation decided to return the 188 works to their original home of Basel, where they are now on permanent loan to the city’s fine arts museum, the Kunstmuseum.

This is a father and son collection.

For some 70 years, Basel shipper and art connoisseur Karl Im Obersteg (1883–1969) and his son Jürg (1914–1983), a professor of forensic medicine, collected international art of the 20th century.

Although they didn’t pursue a specific concept, their friendships with artists – especially with Jawlensky – and a taste for expressive figurative painting influenced their acquisitions.

Permanent collection

The director of the Im Obersteg foundation, Hans Furer, is clearly delighted to see the collection in its new setting in Basel’s Kunstmuseum.

“For me it’s very special. I’ve known this collection for 33 years and it was never before shown in its entirety here,” he told swissinfo.

For the time being, the paintings and sculptures are on view in a temporary exhibition curated by museum directors, Bernhard Mendes Bürgi and Henriette Mentha.

After the exhibition ends on May 2, they will be integrated into the permanent collection of the Kunstmuseum, with the Chagalls joining other Chagalls, the Picassos other Picassos and so on.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson in Basel

Key facts

Karl Im Obersteg (1883-1969) was a Basel shipper who began the collection in 1916.
His son Jürg (1914-1983) also made important acquisitions to add to this major private collection of classic modern 20th century art.
The 188 works include Picasso’s “Absinthe Drinker”, Chagall’s three “Portraits of Jews” and a group of 30 outstanding works by Jawlensky.
Since 1995 the collection had been on public view at Oberhofen next to Lake Thun in Canton Bern.
The works will be integrated into the permanent collection of Basel Kunstmuseum from May.

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