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Greatest German Renaissance Madonna sold by prince

The most important German old master painting to come on the market since the second world war was sold privately on 12 July by Donatus Prince of Hesse to the industrialist Reinhold Würth, 76, for a sum around €50m to €60m.

The panel painting, the Darmstadt Madonna by Holbein the Younger, which has often been described as the northern equivalent of Raphael's Sistine Madonna, could have been worth €120m on the international market, but it is on the list compiled by the State of Hesse of unexportable treasures, so any buyer, while he need not necessarily be a German, must keep the work within Germany.

Darmstadt Madonna

The reason for the sale is that the Hesse family was faced with an inheritance tax bill of DM25m after the death in 1997 of the last of the southern branch of the family, Margaret von Hesse and bei Rhein, and the consequent merger of all its holdings with the northern, Kassel, branch of the family.

Germany has no equivalent of the British or French methods for paying tax with works of art, nor does it have an independent tribunal to assess the true market value of an unexportable work. Christoph Douglas, who negotiated the sale, persuaded the prince to give the Städel Museum in Frankfurt first refusal, but it was unable to raise more than €40m. He then nearly succeeded in a deal whereby the museum and Reinhold Würth would share both the picture and the cost 50/50, but this failed due to lawyers' worries over what would happen on the death of Würth.

The painting will now spend some time on loan to the Städel, where it has been since 2003, or hang in Würth's private museum in a converted 12th-century church in Schwäbisch Hall, along with the medieval panel paintings he bought from another historic German collection, the Fürstenberg. Würth is also known for his collection of contemporary art, which he keeps in another building, and for having largely financed the restoration of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo.

Until 2003, the Holbein was on show to the public in the castle in Darmstadt for 150 years, with occasional breaks. From 1947 to 1958, for example, it was on loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel in exchange for the Swiss taking care of undernourished Darmstadt children.

Painted for the Basel banker and soldier, Meyer von Hasen, in 1526, this Madonna of Mercy, with her cape spread out protectively over his family, escaped the Basel iconoclasm of 1529 and reappeared with the French dealer Le Blond a century later. He had two clients, an Amsterdam book seller and the Queen of France, Marie de Medicis, so he sold her a copy of it by Bartholomäus Sarburgh, later acquired by the King of Saxony, while the original remained in Holland, then reappeared in Paris in 1822, when it was bought by Prince William of Prussia, who bequeathed it to his wife, a Hesse. During the 1850s and 60s there was much argument as to which was the original, the question being settled with the invention of X rays, which showed that an overpainted detail of the Darmstadt version matched a drawing by Holbein in the Kunstmuseum Basel.

The Darmstadt Madonna, King George VI and the spy

In 1998, The Art Newspaper revealed the part played by Anthony Blunt, the royal curator later unmasked as a Soviet spy, in King George VI's attempt to bring the Madonna to England.

During World War II the painting had been evacuated to Silesia in eastern Germany. In February 1945, just hours before the arrival of the Red Army, the Holbein was rescued and taken west, to Coburg, where it was stored in the dungeon of the castle. In April there was heavy fighting, and the Americans seized Coburg. They handed the Holbein back to the Hesse family at Schloss Wolfsgarten nead Darmstadt in December 1945, and Prince Louis of Hesse then approached his distant cousin, George VI, asking him whether he would look after the Holbein in Britain.

Blunt was informed, but he was advised by the Control Commission that this presented considerable diplomatic problems as it would be seen as favoritism towards the enemy, and this would particularly annoy the Americans, in whose zone the painting was located.

After a flurry of letters and calls between Blunt, The King's private secretary and the head of the Control Commission, George VI was finally persuaded to drop the idea, but not before there was a proposal for Prince Louis's wife to bring the picture over in a light aircraft that had been lent to her.

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