IT IS October 11 and the doors of the spectacular new Shanghai Museum are firmly closed to the masses so that the wealthy patrons who have made all this beauty available to the public can browse around undisturbed. There goes Sir Joseph Hotung ambling towards the Watt Kwai Lau Sculpture Gallery. Up on the second floor, T. T. Tsui seems to be heading for the Sir R. R. Shaw Chinese Paintings Gallery. Alice Lam, co-chairman of Sotheby's Asia, and her daughter Patti are practically galloping up the escalators to get a good look at the Calligraphy Gallery. Local furniture dealer Grace Wu Bruce can hardly drag herself away from, of course, the Chuang Gallery of Chinese Furniture. This place is a society magazine editor's delight. The puzzle during this official preview is the extremely glamorous gweilo - Armani suit, honey-brown hair, large dark eyes, seductive smile and unmistakable southern European accent. She just doesn't quite seem to fit in, striding past this Hong Kong elite without a backward glance. Sometimes she is pursued by an elderly but clearly forceful gentleman in a wheelchair and by two young men in sports jackets. It seems unlikely the Hong Kong collectors realise that this is Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza - that hyphen reflects years of European history - once not-so-plain Carmen Cervera, Miss Spain 1961, known to her close friends as Tita. With her is her elderly and incredibly wealthy husband, Heinrich. Tita is in Shanghai with a sizeable entourage because she has lent the new museum 60 paintings from her private collection for three months. The K. K. Leung Exhibition Gallery on the first floor now contains paintings by names like Gauguin, Pissaro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and even a Picasso, along with examples of Tita's passion, the little known 19th-century Spanish genre paintings: bright - some would say lurid - canvases depicting Madrid street scenes and society women wearing bustles. The gallery is beautifully decorated, well lit and houses her well-organised exhibition that scans the last three hundred years of Western art, from a few Old Masters through the landscapes and the Impressionists of the 19th century to the German Expressionists. If there is nothing spectacular or well-known here, at least there is a wide range. But still Tita's offering does not seem to be pulling the crowds and she soon tires of racing around. She ends up having an impromptu chat in the tea rooms with the only people who really know who she is, the four tabloid photographers and one hack she has bought with her from Spain. She and her paintings are undeniably an oddity in this shrine to the longevity of Oriental art and today's Oriental wealth. Five years ago, any kind of Western art would have held its own in a Chinese museum. Today, Tita's lesser known pieces are dwarfed by comparison with the quality in the rest of the museum, those stunning 11th-century BC bronzes and superb Tang dynasty Buddhist sculptures. Tita's performance as a Major Celebrity, ignored by most of the attending Asian VIPs, is just as incongruous, especially, as one indignant member of the Hong Kong art world puts it, 'she only lent a few paintings. Some of those people paid for entire galleries'. TWO years ago, when the loan was first mooted, having a selection from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection to represent the wonders of Western art at the opening of the world's most prestigious showcase of Chinese art must have seemed entirely appropriate. If the Shanghai Museum authorities had to have Western art, this was likely to be as good as anything they could ever borrow. 'My jaw dropped when I first heard they had pieces from the Thyssen collection,' says one prominent Hong Kong visitor who attended the private viewing, 'but I was a bit disappointed with what I saw.' The great expectations are hardly surprising. Tita's husband, Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, 75, is universally acknowledged as one of the most important private collectors in the world. Second only, in fact, to the Queen. The Thyssen money comes from steel, the title and the Bornemisza name comes from the current Baron's mother, a Hungarian aristocrat. Heini built up the steel business, built up the art collection and, in his spare time, married five times. By 1987, the 1,500 works that made up the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was valued at around ?1.85 billion (HK$22.55 billion). The Baron showed less financial acumen in his marital life: the fourth Baroness, Denise Shorto, who divorced him on the grounds of his adultery with Tita, was rumoured to have cost him ?77 million in jewellery alone. When museum director Professor Ma Chengyuan approached Simon Levie (on the board of the Thyssen Foundation and a former director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) and the Thyssens agreed to lend some pieces to the Shanghai Museum, it must have looked like a good deal for all concerned. At the least, notes one Hong Kong collector anxious to remain anonymous, 'it would be a mutual publicity stunt. Both parties would get what they wanted.' The Thyssens get to go the China and be seen as pioneers, lending to unlikely places, and the museum gets the Thyssen name and all the attention that name creates. There was another reason for the Thyssens to consider the request. This would be only the second time the Baroness had exhibited her collection independently, the first time was at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid in March. These days, most of the Baron's really famous paintings are either in his Villa Favorita in Lugano, Switzerland, or in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid where they now belong to the Spanish Government. Three years ago, after health problems, the Baron decided to select an heir to carry on the family tradition of collecting. He divided his paintings among his children - Hans Heinrich, Lorne, Francesca, Alexander and Borja - but none showed enough interest in continuing the collection, certainly not enough to impress their father. So he turned to his wife. At 52, Tita Thyssen is as passionate about paintings as Heini could wish. 'I have the smell in my nose,' she confides. 'I love it.' Which is why the collection in Shanghai, which will be shown until December 14 before it goes to the National Art Gallery in Beijing, is billed as 'Masterpieces From The Collection Of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza'. One international expert in 19th-century Western art who visited the museum last year to talk about plans for displaying Western art says when they showed him the paintings that were to go on display, it became clear that this was 'a Thyssen collection, not the Thyssen collection. Anyone who has been to the Baron's residence in Lugano is going to be disappointed.' THE Thyssens deserve credit for being the first major European art collectors to lend paintings to the new museum, but many of those Hong Kong VIPs who helped pay for it - major sponsors donated US$1 million to have one of the 14 galleries named after them - are wondering why the Shanghai Museum and the Thyssens have restricted themselves to these relatively modest works albeit by big name artists, when the Thyssens are known to own the very best. Practical difficulties almost certainly played a part. The sheer cost of lending more well-known pieces may have been prohibitive. As well as transportation costs, insurance premiums on such works can be colossal. The Musee D'Orsay in Paris, for example, which is lending a collection to the Taiwan Art Museum in January, is having to fly the paintings out in three separate planes for insurance reasons. Inevitably, too, there are practical restrictions. Some of the best works in the Baroness's collection are currently on display in Paris with many more in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid. Was there also a feeling that these pictures, while hardly spectacular to jaded Western and Hong Kong visitors, were unprecedented for Chinese visitors? Never before has there been such a wide-ranging exhibition of Western art as this in Shanghai. As Julian Thompson, co-chairman of Sotheby's Asia who was involved in the early negotiations for the loan - the Baron is on the international board of directors at Sotheby's - points out, this exhibition was supposed to satisfy an appetite for Western art in China, not to impress Western art critics. 'The museum bothers to have Western art because there is such enormous interest in it in China. So many Chinese artists are trained in these styles and have never seen the real thing.' The Baroness' own needs may also have influenced the decision to loan paintings to China. She has become an active collector over the last three years, guided often by her husband but, inevitably, always in his shadow. Her need to establish herself independently as a serious collector would be an understandable one and being feted by officials in a distant glamorous city may have appealed to her. She freely admits that, apart from being married to Heini, her qualifications for the role of serious art collector are few. TITA began her public life as Miss Spain 1961. Since when she's remained famous mainly for being famous. She is often described as a 'former actress' but says she only made two films and can't remember the name of either of them, only that she played Curt Jurgens girlfriend in the second. She then married her first husband, Lex Barker - Tarzan in the late 1950s after Johnny Weismuller. Lex, unlike Heini, disapproved of working wives, and Tita's movie career came to an end. Life's changed a great deal. 'I'm so busy collecting, I haven't bought any new clothes in two years,' she sighs at one point, and such is her charm it's hard not to nod sympathetically. Talking to her is rather like reading an interview in Hello! magazine. Hardly surprisingly, she was a regular in the original Spanish version of the magazine and has even bought along Juan from Hola! to take pictures of her wherever she goes. As long as it doesn't take too long, the glamorous Tita is prepared to pose almost anywhere. The photographic high point of her visit comes when she holds up the traffic to be snapped in front of a row of commuting Shanghai cyclists. She is vague about the juicy details of her life, the number of husbands she has had, for example, mentioning only Barker, who left her a widow at 29, and her Baron, Heini. In between them, there was a Spanish husband, but she doesn't mention him at all, and her press office can only say he 'is not much referred to these days.' What she is happy to talk about is why she thinks Art is a Good Thing for the world. She dwells on an anecdote about holding an exhibition opening in Moscow the day after the Korean airliner was mistakenly shot down by Soviet planes. All the embassies closed in protest, but at the exhibition party diplomats chatted amiably with Politburo members. 'When it was finished, they all went again. That is when I realised that art is above all the terrible things in life. I don't believe in wars, I don't believe in bad things, so I think that art is important.' Bringing Art to China is important, too, because the Chinese are such super people. 'I think China is a country of the future, it is amazing what they have done here. I came last year and the changes they have made - it is amazing. They are very much a working people, and I admire people when they work; all of us in this life, we all have to work,' she says without a trace of irony. While the other guests at the VIP opening seemed to have confined themselves to bringing just their spouses to admire the new museum, Tita has bought 19 people along for the eight-day trip. Immediate family are there - Heini, Alexander and Borja. There's the family butler Georgio Pusiol, who has been with the Baron for 36 years in a relationship that has lasted far longer than any of his marriages. Giorgio looks and carries himself with such aplomb that the casual observer could easily mistake him for the Baron himself. There are some who are there to look after the paintings, including Tomas Llorens, who curated the exhibition and runs the Thyssen Museum in Madrid, and his wife the painter, Ana Peters. And there's Simon Levie and Miriam Samohod de Ballbe who looks after the Thyssens' small collection of religious paintings in Barcelona - one, Santa Maria by Zubaran, is the first you set eyes on in the gallery. Antonio and Santi, the restorer and the hanger, are the only ones in the pack who actually need to touch the paintings, and they work so efficiently that within 48 hours their work is finished. The rest, including an English press officer, three journalists and five photographers, are a bit more difficult to account for. Take Pedro Ruiz, whose father is an art dealer from Barcelona. He keeps himself busy by filming every official handshake and reminding Tita of her schedule. Most puzzling of all is the prominence of Mercedes Lasarte, who describes herself as an old friend of Tita's. She painted the peculiar portrait of Tita that stands by the door of the exhibition - 'It cannot be considered in the same way as the other paintings in the collection,' points out curator Llorens when introducing the paintings. She also responsible for creating the silk ties, painted with copies of the collection's most famous paintings, that the Baron wears in garish contrast to his tasteful double-breasted suits. Mercedes is eager to tell anyone who will listen that these ties are available for sale at a price, and remains glued to Tita and Heini for every single photo opportunity. She even pops up with them at the VIP table at numerous functions, seated next to dignitaries who clearly have no idea who she is but who are too polite to ask. The Thyssen roadshow was planning to fly home before the official opening on October 12 to take advantage of the 'support' of China Eastern Airlines who have provided transportation for the exhibition. 'Tickets are so expensive,' says the Baron, minutes after boasting of his bargain buy of the summer, US$800,000 for a sought-after Van Gogh. He explains that if they don't fly out early on the morning of the 12th, three hours before the official ribbon cutting, they will have to stay in Shanghai for another three days - days which they cannot spare. In the end, someone realises that to miss out on the highlight of the week's events might not go down too well and Swiss Air save the day. The entourage fly home as planned. Tita, Heini and Giorgio stay for the extra day. THE Shanghai Museum authorities have extended every courtesy to the entourage. The tiny, animated director of the museum - who like a true Communist always refers to the Thyssens as 'Tee-san Xiansheng Tee-san furen' [Mr and Mrs Thyssen] - wanted classy Western paintings and, as far as he is concerned, that is what he has got. In an effort at diplomacy, his translator, Mrs Zhou from the cultural exchange office, upgrades the international couple to the 'Baron and Baroneice'. And they, in turn, pay Professor Ma the compliment of recognising his achievement for what it is. The Baron is a man who has strong opinions on museums and he is impressed. 'There is space here to hang the pictures properly. In Lugano, we have no space. We have to hang the pictures on top of one another.' The importance of the Shanghai Museum is not just the quality of its permanent exhibits, but the quality of presentation, which is as good as any museum in the world and certainly far better than anything else in China. Chinese museums are usually dusty, lonely tombs, where the exhibits look as if they have been dumped rather than displayed. Professor Ma not only persuaded the city's rulers that what they really wanted was a new world-class museum to show what a cultural beacon the city was, he also persuaded them to allow him to do the whole thing properly. Despite several set-backs, like running out of money halfway through rebuilding until the Hong Kong tycoons and a few American Oriental art collectors came to the rescue, Ma has achieved his purpose. The museum is a square-sided building based on the shape of an ancient bronze drinking vessel. It's far more impressive from within than from outside. There are four floors, each housing several galleries. Each gallery, in turn, is kitted out to best show off the treasures inside. It might sound simple - the idea of pale blue icy light to highlight the delicacy of the ceramics, for example, or of adorning the Chinese Paintings Gallery with mock bamboo, and of lights that only turn themselves on when someone approaches - but no one else in China seems to think such things are important. If Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza's collection fares badly in comparison with the standards set by the rest of the museum, it is perhaps because those standards are so high, rather than because the standard of her paintings is low. And if Tita herself appears a little ostentatious in her enjoyment of the limelight, perhaps it is only because, for her, this exhibition is more than just an exhibition. It is first her chance to shine as more than a beauty or a wife. It is clear, despite the carping, that the Shanghai authorities are as delighted as she is with the exhibition. There is even talk of a second show next year. Or even a permanent donation. 'Collecting is an obsession and I don't know when it will end because I don't know what I am collecting for,' says Tita, 'I collect because my husband collected. I have the same passion he has, and he says I have a good eye. But I don't know what I will do with it. Perhaps it will come to China one day, the whole collection. Why not?'