The Italian count’s bizarre obsession began in 1956, after he inherited a real-estate fortune from his mother. Family friends were scandalized. “Cretino!” they said on hearing he had paid $500 for a painting by an obscure American modern artist named—if anyone cared—Franz Kline. But Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo trusted his eye rather than his ear, and his patronage of struggling U.S. painters swiftly blossomed into what was widely considered a major eccentricity. Several times a year Panza would journey from his home in Milan to New York City on well-planned buying expeditions. He would visit galleries and seek out the artists in cluttered, seedy lofts and studios in lower Manhattan. Then, through art dealers, he would lay down $2,000 here, $4,000 there, returning to Italy with huge canvases depicting the startling images of the Abstract school and later the powerful but then puzzling works that became known as Pop Art. Many who knew him questioned his sanity. “When I bought them, people really laughed,” he recalls. “My friends said, ‘But anybody can do that. Just empty the trash can. You’re crazy to buy that stuff.’ ”
But times—and tastes—change. Panza’s first purchase, Kline’s Buttress, is now valued at $300,000. Today the American avant-garde of 30 years ago, once ridiculed and rejected by the art establishment, is a highly regarded genre, and the count’s collection of more than 600 works from the most explosive period of American art is recognized as one of the most important—and valuable—in the world. Recently it was announced that the fore-sighted connoisseur had sold 80 paintings and sculptures amassed between 1957 and 1963 to Los Angeles’ fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art for $11 million, many times their original purchase price of $350,000. The hoard included major early works by Kline, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, George Segal, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg. Overnight, the sale made the little-known L.A. museum a force in the art world. “I think it’s a magnificent beginning,” declared museum director Richard Koshalek, who plans to install the collection in either his “Temporary Contemporary”—a converted warehouse in downtown L.A.—or wait until the opening of a permanent facility in the fall of 1986.
Incredibly, 80 of Panza’s most spectacular artworks—those scheduled for October delivery to L.A.—had remained packed away in crates in a Zurich warehouse since 1974, when they were shipped to Switzerland in readiness for exhibition in two museums. Then Count Panza and his beloved paintings ran afoul of Italian currency laws. When the lengthy dispute ended last year, he was left with two undesirable options: he could pay a stinging excise tax or sell the entire collection. Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the world’s leading art auctioneers, appraised the works at $15 million, but Panza decided against selling them piecemeal. “I would have had more money,” he acknowledges, “but for me it would have been psychologically a terrible trauma to break up the collection—to destroy what I had put together with so much love and interest.” When no Italian museum could raise the necessary funds, the count concluded the deal with the L.A. institution, which has several years to obtain money from foundations, corporations and individuals. “When the director from Los Angeles came to Zurich to inspect the paintings and the packing boxes were opened, my husband cried,” recalls Countess Rosa Giovanna Magnifico Panza di Biumo, 52. “He hadn’t seen the paintings for almost 10 years.”
Such unabashed emotion is typical of Count Panza, 61, whose successful businessman father was given a title in 1940. A frail, courtly figure, he doesn’t remotely resemble the suave wheelers and dealers common in the art world. “It is exciting,” he says of his relationship with the artists he collects. “You have a dialogue with another man about his most profound experiences. It’s also a beautiful experience, because in a way you possess him.”
The love of art was fostered by his mother, an artist—and by a bout of scarlet fever when he was 14. Quarantined for six weeks, young Panza used the time to read up on the history of art. Though he took a law degree at the University of Milan in 1948 (he never practiced) and pursued a business career, art collecting was his true vocation. Dedicated to the idea that ambiente—the environment that surrounds the work—is crucial to the art’s integrity, Panza converted his family’s 100-room, 18th-century country villa at Varese into an elegant museum for his collection.
With their five children grown up—the youngest is 17—Panza’s absorption with art no longer bothers his wife of 28 years. “She used to say I spent too much time with my pictures and not enough with my family,” says the count. “But she realizes that it means a great deal to me and she never has put obstacles in the way of my passion.” With some of his paintings on display abroad, Panza now devotes much of the ambiente of his villa to conceptual and environmental sculpture. In one room, for instance, two large fans face a wall, creating a continuous interplay of air. The living art of flowing air might seem of dubious value to some, but the count is still ahead of his time, still betting on his cultured instincts. For those with more conventional tastes, he recommends a visit to his former collection when it opens in Los Angeles. “Going to a museum should be an emotional experience,” he enthuses. “A place where the perfect life is lived. You should experience maximum joy.”