Count Giuseppe Panza, Pioneering Collector of the American Avant-Garde, Has Died

Count Giuseppe Panza de Biumo, arguably one of the greatest European collectors of postwar American art from Abstract Expressionism to conceptual art, died in Milan on Friday at the age of 87.

Dr. Panza (aka Dottore) first made headlines on these shores in 1984, selling 80 works to the newborn Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles for $11 million and donating another 70. That bequest included seven major pieces by Mark Rothko, 12 Franz Klines, and 11 eleven mixed-media pieces by Robert Rauschenber instantly putting MoCA, where Panza served as a trustee, on the international museum map. Today, a single work from that early acquisition would most likely fetch or exceed the price of the entire sale. At the time, Panza gave the museum a five-year interest-free window to pay for the trove.

Major works by Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, and Bruce Nauman — to name just some in MoCA's pantheon — were also part of that early package, the lion’s share of which was acquired directly from the artists’ studios or from primary-market shows. Panza made these purchases without art advisors or bespoke curators, solely trusting his own eye.Today the pieces can be counted among the most significant works in an L.A. institution — certainly from the latter half of the 20th century — and the intellectual luster shared by many of them provides a beacon to West Coast artists seeking to explore art's hardest questions.

An heir to a Milan–based wine merchant and real estate developer, Panza began collecting in 1956 when he bought a work by Antoni Tapies. His first American purchase came the following year, when he paid $500 for Kline’s 1956 Buttress after seeing a reproduction of it in a business magazine, according to a nine-hour Archives of American Art interview that critic Christopher Knight conducted with the collector in 1985.

Knight pointedly asked Count Panza why he overlooked Andy Warhol in his otherwise pitch-perfect acquisition spree that took place over many decades. “I believed that Lichtenstein was better,” said Panza in the interview. “In 1962 Warhol looks to me close to Lichtenstein but not so good as Lichtenstein. But it was mistake.”

For the collector, MoCA was just the beginning of a remarkable trail of sales and donations that led him from one American museum to another, causing an even bigger stir in 1990 with the Guggenheim Museum acquired 200 works from Panza, receiving an additional 100 as donations. In order to pay for the $30 million package, the Guggenheim’s then-director Thomas Krens initiated a controversial deaccession plan, selling works by the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and Amedeo Modigliani at Sotheby’s in May 1990 for $47 million at the height of that art boom.

Just this month, the fast-expanding San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced a new acquisition (for an undisclosed price) of 25 conceptual-art masterworks from the Panza collection, including five early pieces that Bruce Nauman made when he was working in the Bay Area — among them the artist’s only extant painting, Untitled (1964-65).

Though the slim and slight Panza was revered as a remarkable collector and philanthropist, all was not peaches and cream, judging by a venom-packed manifesto penned by Donald Judd in 1989. Famously titled “Una stanza per Panza,” the screed escoriated the collector for fabricating Judd works from sketches he owned without the artist's permission — let alone participation — and then installing them at the his ancestral home at Villa Varese, which is now a national museum.

“Guiseppe Panza makes my work himself, contrary to the original agreement that it be made only under my supervision,” Judd wrote in Kunst Intern Magazin in May 1990. “Panza’s only purpose is to be a rich big shot.” Borrowing a comparison that columnist Gary Wills made of Richard Nixon, Judd wrote that Panza was like the Iliad's craven soldier, Thersites. “He cannot be embarrassed, he cannot be shamed, he cannot be silenced," Judd chided. "He has never done anything wrong.” 

After the controversial Guggenheim acquisition, which included 27 Judd works, the artist was quoted in the New York Times as disowning the works. “As far as I’m concerned, the Guggenheim has bought a pig in a poke,” Judd said. Panza fired back in the article, saying that Judd had previously stipulated he could fabricate the works himself. “It’s completely wrong of him to say that," he riposted. "Judd forgets and changes his mind.”

Other conceptual artists, including Flavin and Nauman, also took issue with some of the pieces that Panza had constructed from sketches, but no one came close to Judd’s vitriol. Today, Panza’s 18th-century Villa Varese — also known as Villa Mena foglio Litta, and famously compared to the “Versailles of Milan” — contains the world’s largest collection of Flavin works, as well masterpieces of Pre-Columbian and African art sculptures.

The count's recently-published autobiography, Giuseppe Panza: Memories of a Collector, casts new light onto his storied career. A preview available on Saatchi Online in the form of Barbara Casavecchias interview with Panza, or instance, provides insight into the collector's approach to art. During Casavecchia's visit to Villa Varese, Lawrence Carroll, a young Brooklyn–based artist who was working on an installation there, told her: “Some collectors want to know everything about a piece. He never asks what the work is about. He just looks at it. For hours.”

Panza is survived by his wife Rosa Giovanna and five sons.