A 15-year quest to do a good deed

Seville businessman Mariano Bellver wanted to make a €14m gift to his city But bureaucratic hurdles meant he had to wait more than a decade to do so

Margot Molina
Mariano Bellver inside his home, with a few items from his collection on display.
Mariano Bellver inside his home, with a few items from his collection on display.paco puentes

Mariano Bellver, who has been an art collector for more than 50 years, no longer buys on impulse.

In 2000 he decided to donate his treasure to the city of Seville, his place of residence since 1940.

The first thing he did was to “professionalize” his collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics and furniture, eliminating anything that was below public-exhibition quality.

But Bellver, a businessman and owner of the private school San Juan Bosco, has had to wait 15 years before being able to make his gift due to all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles.

At one point, tired of dealing with all the public and private paperwork, he considered auctioning off the collection and donating the proceeds to charity.

But at long last, Bellver – who was born in the Basque city of Bilbao but considers himself “more Andalusian than many Andalusians” – was able to complete his good deed.

Last week, he finally signed over the artworks to the city of Seville. The collection, which includes 943 items, is worth an estimated €14 million.

I even received an offer to take my collection to Azerbaijan”

Mariano Bellver

Although it is eclectic in nature, encompassing everything from 16th-century ivory sculptures from the Philippines to Meissen porcelain, the collection’s strong point is its 19th-century paintings from the Sevillian school, depicting local customs and manners.

Throughout the years, Bellver and his wife, Dolores Mejías, built up and cared for this collection as though the artworks were the children they never had; and indeed, they refer to the art that hangs from their walls as their kids.

Among the 364 paintings that the couple has donated to Seville, there are around 30 works by José García Ramos, several by Sánchez Perrier, two large-format pieces by Gonzalo Bilbao, delicate watercolors by Villegas Cordero, and a Venetian landscape by José Jiménez Aranda.

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“In truth, it is an act of selfishness, because I want to keep it, but since nobody gets to take anything to the afterlife...,” says Bellver, who at the age of 88 exhibits an enviable state of health and a remarkable memory. “At least this way it will remain united, and Sevillanos will be able to enjoy it.

“I don’t want money, I have never sold a painting, but I do want Sevillanos to be able to have this forever,” he adds, confessing that he still gets up at 7am every morning and shows up at the school office by 8am. “You get more enjoyment out of giving than receiving.”

The couple’s 1,200-m2 home is filled to the rafters with artworks that Bellver, who made his fortune through real estate in the 1950s, has been acquiring at auctions and antique stores across the world. In fact, the only part of his 18th-century mansion that is devoid of art is the elevator.

Under the deal, the Real pavilion that is set to house the collection must open to the public on December 5, 2016, when Bellver will turn 90. Before that, the city needs to restore the building, located inside the popular Maria Luisa Park, where it was built expressly for the 1929 Ibero-American Expo. Renovation work will cost €3 million.

The Bellver art collection will be housed in a pavilion inside María Luisa Park in Seville.
The Bellver art collection will be housed in a pavilion inside María Luisa Park in Seville.Zu Sánchez

“If that doesn’t happen, there is no deal,” says Bellver. “It’s all been thought through. Even if something should happen to me before that date, the deal still holds.”

During the last 15 years, he says he has received several offers to house his work.

“Many cities have expressed an interest in showcasing my collection, including Bilbao and Málaga; I even received an offer to take it to Azerbaijan, and two auction houses [Christie’s and Sotheby’s] wanted to buy the whole thing off me on behalf of an American gentleman who was going to set up his house just like ours,” he says with an amused look in his eyes.

Now, Bellver is thinking of what will replace his collection once it leaves his home.

“I have around 100 works more, so I don’t think the walls will ever be bare.”

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