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Baron Hans Thyssen, 81; Billionaire Art Collector


Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, billionaire industrialist and man about the world who amassed the finest private art collection second only to that of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, has died. He was 81.

Thyssen died early Saturday of a heart attack at his home in Sant Feliu de Guixols north of Barcelona, Spain, according to an announcement by the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.

The custodian of a three-generation fortune and two-generation title, Thyssen seemed to enjoy the notoriety that his far-flung interests generated.

A bona fide jet-setter in the 1960s and '70s, he crisscrossed the Atlantic to sit on the boards of about 30 corporations, buy art and court world beauties.

Born to a German father and Hungarian mother, he was a native of the Netherlands, became a Swiss citizen in 1950, and for tax advantages lived primarily in Monte Carlo.

He married five women and divorced four--German Princess Teresa of Lippe, model Nina Dyer of England, model Fiona Campbell-Walker of Scotland and heiress Liliane Denise Shorto of Brazil. His fifth wife, the former Miss Spain, Maria del Carmen Rosario "Tita" Cervera Fernandez, survives and was with him when he died.

The fortune began with Thyssen's grandfather, August Thyssen, the son of a German pharmacist and founder of a steel mill in the industrial Ruhr district that made chicken wire and other staples of the 19th century.

Although August didn't begin the fabled art collection, he enjoyed art and befriended sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Thyssen's father, also named Heinrich, began the nomadic meandering, the diversification of business interests and the buying of Old Masters, which Thyssen would perfect.

The third of August Thyssen's sons, Heinrich immigrated to Hungary in 1905 and married Baroness Margit Bornemisza de Kaszon, the daughter of the king's chamberlain. With no sons of his own, the chamberlain passed his title to his son-in-law, who added Bornemisza (meaning "doesn't drink wine," a description that never fit Thyssen's father or son) to his name.

Fleeing communism in Hungary after World War I, he moved the family to the Netherlands, where Hans Heinrich, or "Heini" as he was known, was born on April 13, 1921.

Fleeing Nazi influences and the approach of World War II, the family moved to Switzerland, where the elder Thyssen bought an 18th-century villa near Lugano and named it Villa Favorita. There the growing art collection would hang for several decades.

Ironically, August Thyssen's oldest son and Heini's uncle, Fritz, who remained in Germany and in the family steel business, became one of Hitler's earliest and most ardent supporters, providing funds for the Nazi cause.

He later denounced Hitler and was imprisoned by the Nazis and, after the war, by the Allies for his changing allegiances.

At his father's death in 1947, Heini Thyssen inherited the title of baron and his father's love and lust for art, money and women--in no certain order.

As his father had diversified from steel into banking and shipping, Thyssen further diversified family business interests to include glass, plastics, automobile parts and container leasing.

He gradually began to diversify the art collection to include 20th-century works, which his father had famously called "rubbish." The original collection of more than 400 works, however, had been divided with Thyssen's two siblings, and he spent 15 years or so buying it back to keep the collection intact.

Heini Thyssen vastly increased the art collection, adding German and French Impressionists, fauvists, Russian avant-garde, and American early art, including works by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer and modern and pop art by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney. Opening Villa Favorita to the public, he also lent his paintings generously for exhibits around the world.

"You can lock paintings in a bedroom or on a shelf, but they are not painted for that purpose," Thyssen told The Times in 1980, when the nine-city tour of 57 "Old Master Paintings from the Collection of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza" stopped at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Annemarie H. Pope, president and founder of the Washington-based International Exhibitions Foundation, which organized and circulated the show, described it for The Times then as "about the best of the 100 [exhibitions] we have sent in our 15-year history."

In 1983, Thyssen's "American Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection," featuring works by John Singleton Copley, Sargent, Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe, was exhibited at the San Diego Museum of Art. In 1985, his "20th Century Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection," featuring works by Picasso and Kandinsky, was presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Thyssen's $2-billion art trove was sought by governments and museums around the world, prompting him to joke: "I keep a list of countries from Albania to Zululand that want my collection."

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