Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s in the cosmopolitan port city of Alexandria, Egypt, Arturo Schwarz idolized European intellectuals.
At about age 20 he struck up a correspondence with Surrealism’s chief theorist, André Breton. He also helped found an Egyptian branch of the Fourth International, the dissident communist group that pledged allegiance to Leon Trotsky.
But Mr. Schwarz’s youth of aesthetic contemplation and bookish activism was brought to a brutal halt in 1947, when the Egyptian authorities deemed him subversive and made him a political prisoner.
One morning in early 1949, his jailers gave him a shave. Mr. Schwarz readied himself for the gallows. Instead, he was brought to a port and expelled to his mother’s country of origin, Italy.
“I arrived naked, like a worm,” he said later. “I had nothing — nothing — not a piece of bread, not one lira.”
This penniless young radical in a strange land did possess something else that would prove to be of greater enduring value: the ability to befriend art-world giants like Breton. He went on to found a prominent gallery devoted to Dadaist and Surrealist art in Milan and become probably the world’s greatest self-made collector and donor of work from those artistic movements.
He died at 97 on June 23 at a hospital in Genoa, Italy. The cause was a stroke, his daughter, Silvia Schwarz Linder, said.
By 1954, after a few years in the import-export business, Mr. Schwarz had saved up enough to open a bookstore, which he turned into Galleria Schwarz, a vehicle for exhibiting and selling art. In focusing on Dadaism and Surrealism, he curated exhibitions devoted to figures like René Magritte, Joan Miró, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.
“At the time, Duchamp had been completely forgotten,” Mr. Schwarz once recalled in a panel discussion. “I put him back in the picture.”
By the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Schwarz had grown close enough to Duchamp and Man Ray for the two artists to entrust him with producing replicas of their old works, which they would then authenticate with their signatures. That resulted in 10 copies of 10 works by Man Ray and eight copies of 16 works by Duchamp, all intended for the market, along with extras intended for museums, the artists and Mr. Schwarz personally.
The originals of some of these artworks, including two of Duchamp’s ready-mades from the 1910s, “Hat Rack” and “Trap,” had been lost without being recreated in any other form.
Adina Kamien, a senior curator at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, said that without Mr. Schwarz, the public would never have been able to see some classic works of art. “He saved them from oblivion,” she said.
Mr. Schwarz gave a full set of his Duchamp ready-mades to the Israel Museum in 1972, and he followed that up in 1998 and 2003 with gifts of hundreds of works by Arshile Gorky, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst and others. The New York Times estimated the 1998 and 2003 gifts to be worth more than $30 million and called Mr. Schwarz’s collection “unparalleled.”
“The level of philanthropy — how many times has it happened that a man or a woman gives 800 works of art to a museum?” Ms. Kamien said. “It transformed the Israel Museum into a center for the study and display of Dada and Surrealism.”
Building the collection took luck, charisma and a devotion that verged on self-sacrifice.
To buy his first Duchamp, in 1950, Mr. Schwarz spent three months having nothing for dinner but a slice of bread with cheese and a tomato. For every exhibition he held, he kept one or two items that his clients had ignored.
It helped that his tastes were ahead of his time. In 1968 he traveled to Bern, Switzerland, for the estate sale of the Surrealist poet and writer Tristan Tzara. He took out a loan from his bank, but when he found few people at the auction, he spent twice as much as he had planned, buying 300 objects.
“Less than a decade later, everybody went mad about Dada and Surrealism and wanted to buy,” Mr. Schwarz was quoted as saying in the catalog for an exhibition at the Israel Museum focusing on his collection. “I started selling single items at prices 10 times higher than the whole amount I had spent on the 300 pieces.”
And his friendships with artists enabled his production of the replicas. As had been the case with Breton, Mr. Schwarz made Duchamp’s acquaintance by writing him a letter without any previous introduction. He went on to visit the artist in New York and at his homes outside Paris and in the Spanish town of Cadaqués.
“He did come just at the right time — he was one of the people who helped to create the Duchamp boom,” said Matthew Affron, a curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “He succeeded by maintaining very close personal relationships initially with these figures, and I’m sure the building of his career as a gallerist, as an art historian and as a curator derived from those relationships.”
Arturo Umberto Samuele Schwarz was born in Alexandria on Feb. 3, 1924. His father, Richard, was a chemist who invented a method for freeze-drying food, and his mother, Margherita Vitta, was a homemaker.
Arturo earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Egyptian branch of the Sorbonne and another in natural sciences from the Egyptian branch of Oxford University, both in the 1940s. He went on to the medical school of Farouk University in Alexandria but was expelled for his dissident politics not long before his arrest.
During his imprisonment, the Egyptian authorities tortured Mr. Schwarz by tearing out his toenails. He developed gangrene, and he lost the big toe of his right foot.
In 1951, soon after moving to Italy, he married Vera Zavatarelli. She died in 1984. His second marriage, to Rita Magnanini, ended in divorce. He married Linda Pozzali in 2014. In addition to his wife and his daughter, from his first marriage, Mr. Schwarz is survived by two grandchildren.
He had been hospitalized in Genoa because it was near his summer home in the resort town of Santa Margherita Ligure. He lived in Milan.
Mr. Schwarz, who wrote poetry and essays, curated exhibitions long after his gallery closed in 1975. Until the end of his life, he referred to “we Surrealists” and spoke of himself as having “joined the Surrealist movement.” He frequently sounded like the Surrealists of old, speaking mystically about the human unconscious, deploying concepts taken from Carl Jung like “anima” and “animus.”
Mr. Schwarz cemented his expertise in Duchamp by producing the artist’s catalogue raisonné, and he provoked what he himself called a “scandal” by arguing that Duchamp’s artwork had been influenced by a “love affair” that had occurred “at an unconscious level” between the artist and his sister Suzanne. Those who disagreed with this interpretation, he said, were “conventional” and “hypocritical.”
The immense wealth represented by Mr. Schwarz’s collection seemed not to affect his bohemian sensibility. He gave his art away, he told the Italian newspaper Avvenire in 2014, “for benefit of the eye of the people.”