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Holbein's Madonna

July 14, 2011

Frankfurt's Städel Museum has long negotiated with a German family for Holbein's Madonna, one of the most valuable Renaissance works of art. A private German collector outbid the museum, and plans to exhibit the work.

Holbein's Madonna painting
The Madonna is one of the most significant works of its timeImage: picture alliance/dpa

A painting of the Virgin Mary by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), known as one of the best and most valuable examples of Northern Renaissance art, has been bought by German billionaire and businessman Reinhold Würth.

Holbein's Madonna is estimated to have fetched the highest amount ever paid for an artwork in Germany, though the exact price remains unknown. In terms of global sales of old masters, it likely takes second place behind the 2002 purchase of Rubens' "Massacre of the Innocents" for 45 million pounds (around $66 million at the time) by Canadian media mogul David Thomson.

Currently, the painting is on loan to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt until July 24, where it has been displayed since 2003. After the work changes hands, it's expected to be publically shown in Würth's art collection in Schwäbisch Hall, an idyllic town in southern Germany.

Holbein's masterpiece has been owned by the family estate of Prince Ludwig von Hessen, but the family rejected a bid of 40 million euros ($57 million dollars) from the Städel and allied institutions during long negotiations for the work.

"The museum went to its absolute limit in offering 40 million euros in cash. A higher price was not possible for us," wrote the Staedel's director, Max Hollein, in a statement noting that the painting sold for a "significantly higher" amount.

A 'riveting' depiction

Painted between 1526 and 1528, the work was commissioned by the former mayor of Basel, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, and depicts his family clustered around the Virgin Mary.

"Many factors combine to make up the value of this work - it's one of a kind, in perfect condition and the scene is quite riveting," Axel Braun of the Städel Museum told Deutsche Welle.

Holbein's Madonna in Frankfurt's Städel Museum, painted in oil on a 146 x 102 cm (57 x 40 in) wood canvas
Holbein's Madonna has been on display in FrankfurtImage: picture alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Holbein's masterpiece is on a federal index of protected art works, preventing it from permanently leaving Germany. Had the work been offered on the international art market, its selling price could have doubled the Städel's offer. The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reported that California's Getty Museum was prepared to invest more than $100 million to acquire the work but was hindered by its protected status.

The Madonna painting is one of four Holbein paintings on the federal list, which includes internationally acclaimed works ranging from antiquity to the 20th century. Transporting these and other indexed works abroad for exhibition purposes requires special state approval.

Painting still accessible

Würth was in talks with the Städel to buy the painting jointly before deciding to make an offer on his own.

"Purchasing the painting alone rather than jointly ensures that the ownership status remains simpler and clearer," explained Britta Fischer, a representative of the Würth Group, noting that "the Städel simply couldn't put together the funds needed to meet the owner's asking price."

Against a trend of wealthy collectors privately buying and storing famous pieces as investments, the purchase by Reinhold Würth ensures the public will still have the chance to admire Holbein's masterpiece. The businessman's collection includes around 14,000 works that he has collected since the 1960s, many of which are on display in galleries and museums he has founded.

Despite the praise he has received for his support of the arts, Würth has also been criticized for labor practices in the screw factories he operates and was convicted and fined several million euros in 2008 for tax evasion.

Reinhold Würth in one of his art galleries
Reinhold Würth wants the public to continue to have access to the paintingImage: picture alliance/dpa

"It is definitely Mr. Würth's intention to continue to make the painting available to the public by presenting it in his galleries, and museums in Frankfurt and Darmstadt will be given preference for borrowing the work," Fischer told Deutsche Welle.

Author: Greg Wiser
Editor: Kate Bowen