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Declassified papers reveal Margaret Thatcher’s spirited campaign to get the Thyssen collection

But the British prime minister was thwarted by the baron’s Spanish wife and her sick dog, so the works ended up in Madrid

by Martin Bailey  |  3 March 2017
Declassified papers reveal Margaret Thatcher’s spirited campaign to get the Thyssen collection
The Baron and Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza at their Swiss mansion, Villa Favorita, in 1989. Photo: © Chema Conesa
Margaret Thatcher campaigned hard to bring the Thyssen collection to the UK, recently declassified Downing Street documents at the UK National Archives reveal. At one point in 1988, it looked like the UK prime minister was winning over Baron Heini Thyssen-Bornemisza, but British hopes were ultimately thwarted. His wife, a former Miss Spain, preferred Madrid as a home for the collection that Neil MacGregor, the then director of London’s National Gallery, advised Downing Street was “the most important private collection of paintings in the world”.

Baroness Carmen “Tita” Thyssen-Bornemisza, referred to as the “fifth edition” by one of Thatcher’s advisers since the Baron had married five times, did not attend a crucial meeting with British officials, because her favourite dog was ill. Very soon afterwards, she convinced her husband that his collection should go to the Spanish capital, where 25 years ago the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza opened in the Villahermosa Palace near the Prado.

Portraits of Baron Heini Thyssen-Bornemisza, his fifth wife Carmen, and her little dog too (Image: Allyson Johnson)
The 1,365 pictures were valued by Sotheby’s at $1.2bn (then £670m), an enormous sum at that time. They included masterpieces by Van Eyck, Dürer, Holbein, Carpaccio, Caravaggio, Cézanne, Degas and Van Gogh. The major works were to be donated, with the lesser items being paid for, and the host nation would be required to provide a museum building and meet the running costs.

Thyssen, then 66, was wooed from all sides. Madrid and London were the frontrunners, with Los Angeles, Barcelona, Bonn, Stuttgart and Lugano, in Switzerland, being serious contenders.

The UK documents reveal that, in 1988, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles offered a package deal worth $500m (then £280m). Thyssen, however, did “not feel that the Getty Foundation is a particularly reliable body”. He was also aware that many of the family pictures had been “bought from the USA by his father [Heinrich] in the [19]30s in order to return them to Europe”. A Getty spokeswoman confirms that it had made an offer, adding: “We don’t discuss the price of acquisitions.”

A prize collection

  • Vincent Van Gogh, Les Vessenots in Auvers (1890), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait Wearing a Hat and Two Chains (around 1642-1643), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Edgar Degas, Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green) (1877-1879), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Caravaggio, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (around 1598), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Pablo Picasso, Harlequin with a Mirror (1923), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Albrecht Dürer, Jesus among the Doctors (1506), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Edward Hopper, Hotel Room (1931), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Deomenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna Tournabuoni (1488), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fränzi in front of carved chair (1910), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Duccio di Buoninsegna, Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-11), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Franz Marc, The Dream (1912), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Paul Cézanne, Portrait of a Farmer (1905-06), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
  • Vittore Carpaccio, Young Knight in a Landscape (1510), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Thatcher believed that the Thyssen collection would be a glittering prize for the millennium celebrations. Robin Butler, her cabinet secretary, advised her that “we are looking straight into the mouth of a gift horse—act fast”. Paintings by Altdorfer and Memling would represent a “true investment”, which is “bound to increase in value”. Negotiations needed to be kept confidential, with Butler sending an underlined warning about keeping circulation of minutes to the “minimum necessary”.

Despite her reputation for having limited interest in the arts, the declassified papers reveal that Thatcher fought hard for the collection. Her first step was to invite Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza to Downing Street on 15 March 1988, during his visit to London for the opening of an exhibition of his Old Masters at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Then came a blow. On 7 April 1988, the Spanish government announced a preliminary accord with Thyssen to bring his collection to Madrid. Thatcher’s advisers became concerned that a dispute over the pictures could overshadow the Queen’s planned royal visit to Spain in October. However, one of Thatcher’s confidantes, Peter Smithers, advised that the accord was just “a last desperate effort by Baroness Thyssen to scare us off from making an offer so that the Spanish arrangement, which she favoured, would go through”. Thatcher decided to make a formal offer.

On 21 May, Robin Butler brought the terms to Villa Favorita in Lugano, the Baron’s Swiss mansion. On arrival, he had to wait for Thyssen and his wife to finish lunch, but unexpectedly the Baroness then excused herself “because her favourite dog was ill”.

Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)
The UK’s offer was £120m for the paintings. A further £38m (plus £10m for the site) would be given for what would be called The Thyssen Gallery, to be built at Canary Wharf, in east London. Running costs up to £4m a year would be funded by the government. The formal offer was accompanied by a handwritten letter from Thatcher expressing her “growing sense of excitement and gratitude”. Thyssen was duly impressed with Thatcher’s note, passing it around his dinner table to friends, commenting that such a handwritten letter “must be a rare document”.

Butler reported back that Thyssen had been “very impressed” by the proposal. However, the Baroness’s views were still unknown, since “her dog had died yesterday”; she was “distraught and had not studied the proposals”. Thatcher scribbled a note on the report of the meeting: “Excellent news although we could not count our chickens.”

Then the situation turned sour. On 30 May the Baron wrote to Thatcher, saying that he had discussed the offer with his wife and eldest son George. The family had decided on Madrid. A week later, Thatcher acknowledged the response, adding a handwritten note: “The collection is so beautiful and must mean so much to your family”, so it must have been a difficult decision.

Dissenting voices

Behind the scenes, there had been dissenting voices over the Thyssen acquisition. John Major, then the chief secretary to the Treasury, who succeeded Thatcher as prime minister, had warned that it could become another arts project “on the scale of the British Library, which is costing well over £300m”. It would also “strengthen pressures for greater public munificence in other areas”. What may now seem more surprising is that Neil MacGregor also issued a private warning, although he acknowledged the collection’s importance. The reaction of trustees and staff of “underfunded” museums would be “unlikely to be either favourable or muted”, with the high running costs precipitating “vociferous and articulate protest”.

Roy Strong, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum until 1987, took a very different line. He sent a handwritten note to Thatcher, making it clear that he was a consultant for the Canary Wharf development scheme. He advised the prime minister not to be “deflected by the negative attitudes of members of my ex-profession about which I know only too much”.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza eventually opened in 1992, with the paintings formally acquired the following year. It has proved highly successful, attracting just over one million visitors last year. Baron Thyssen died in 2002. The Baroness, who is the vice-chairman of the museum, has built up her own collection of 900 paintings. Many are on loan to the Madrid museum, but there is currently a dispute over their future. The Baroness, now 73, may pull them out of Spain unless an agreement is reached.

Possible venues: London, Birmingham or Rotherham?

One of the key questions facing Thatcher was where to establish the Thyssen Collection if it were acquired by the UK. Her officials advised her that it needed to be “close to an airport that could accommodate the Baron’s private jet”. The Baron also wanted space, because he did not want his paintings “to be shown like postage stamps in rows”. UK officials considered historic buildings in central London, a new-build in Birmingham and a country house near Rotherham in the north of England.

Canary Wharf, east London
Two sites were considered in the office development in the former London docks, at Westferry Circus and on the waterfront just to the south.

Lancaster House, London
Although one of the capital’s grandest mansions, Thyssen dismissed this government-owned building as “too small, [with] too little room”.

Somerset House, London
Thyssen rejected it, saying that he would “not welcome being alongside the Courtauld collection”, which was about to move into the historic building along the River Thames.

Centenary Square, Birmingham
The gallery would have been part of the development that now includes the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Rotherham, South Yorkshire
Built in the early 18th century, this is the largest privately owned house in Europe. Thyssen dismissed it as “too far away”. After remaining unoccupied for decades, it is now finally being preserved.

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