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Private Parts: The Darmstadt Madonna (Holbein the Younger)

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Private Parts is a series exposing the raw, gritty, and true stories behind artworks in private collections. Every week, you’ll find the untold tales of the back stabbings, thefts, and $100 million deals that move these works to secret lairs and impregnable vaults around the world. We’ll always be crazy in love with museums and galleries, but we also believe in giving the people what they want: All the art.

This week, behold Hans Holbein the Younger’s Darmstadt Madonna.

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Holbein the Younger depicting male-pattern balding infant Jesus as fed up with everyone’s crap.

That ain’t just any garden-variety Madonna. That there’s a Schulzmantelbild, i.e. the Virgin of Pity. Mary’s head gear is made up like the German imperial crown, so you know she’s ready for a night on the burg doing triple duty as queen of heaven, Germany and everything in between. Pulling off that princely pity party posture because the patron had a piss poor life. 

Almost everyone in the patron’s family was dead before Holbein painted them above. From left to right, we have Jakob Meyer, the patron (and chronic helmet-hair sufferer), then his sons (both RIP), his daughter Anna, and then his first and second wives (again, both RIP). Yeah, life before modern medicine could be a real raw deal.

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Jakob had it so rough that the death of nearly everyone in his family was just the start of his problems. 

The guy was a die-hard Catholic and leader of the local Catholic-aligned political party at a really inconvenient time. When his town was overrun with protestants, Jakob got the boot from political leadership, was fined for being Catholic, and was thrown in jail to send a message to any other pesky papists milling about. He participated in politics on and off afterward until the protestants basically illegalized being Jakob Meyer.

The painting was passed down through generations of Jakob’s family for a 100 years before miraculously being and winding up in Paris. Miraculous because everyone in his family had turned protestant during the height of iconoclasm, when anyone worth their Lutheran beliefs took a sledgehammer to images of Mary, Christ, and the saints.

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The Madonna made it out of iconoclasm without a scratch. Winding up in the hands of a dealer named Michael Le Blond. The guy was a brilliant viral marketer, drumming up a bidding war for the painting between the ex-queen of France Maria de’ Medici and some 1%er merchant out of Amsterdam. Le Blond split the difference and got a check from both customers after commissioning a copy. The merchant got the OG, and the ex-queen got the pretender.

Both paintings ended up in forever homes just across Germany from each other. After de’ Medici’s death, the copy went through Venice and into the collection of the Count of Dresden, where it’s stayed ever since. The original went back to Paris. William of Prussia nabbed it for his wife, who sent it to her family in a castle outside Darmstadt in the principality of Hesse. 

Soon, everyone involved realized these Virgins of Pity were twinning. Thus, a totally necessary race was on to figure out which was the original. The solution? Science!

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X-rays proved the Darmstadt Madonna was the real deal. It remained one of the prized possessions for the principality of Hesse. Staying on the castle walls for almost 150 years straight.

And then came World War II. The Red Army was sweeping across the continent, gunning for Hitler and anyone that looked or sounded like Hitler. Soviet soldiers had a reputation for being handsy with artwork in Germany. Sending prime cuts from public and private collections back to Moscow. It was Russia’s little way of sticking it to Germany for starting a war that took millions of their citizens’ lives and remains a sticky topic between Russia and Western Europe to this day.

The Prince of Hesse didn’t want all his cool stuff getting turned into communist swag, so he mailed everything (Madonna included) over to Dresden for safekeeping. The Allies firebombed Dresden to teach Germany a lesson (never mind that the town had little military value other than a railroad), killing thousands of civilians and nearly destroying the Darmstadt Madonna. Not wanting to take any chances, the prince shipped the painting to Veste Coburg on the Polish border. However, as the war ended, Polish peasants proved as handsy as the Soviets. The Madonna was (again) in danger. The entire priceless collection was in danger. They needed a hero. And they got some.

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The Monuments Men rescued the entire Hessian collection from Veste Coburg, trucking it across the Germany back to Darmstadt. With the journey almost over, one of the numerous trucks caught fire. So, of course, it had to be the truck carrying the Madonna. The Prince of Hesse and one of the Monuments Men put out the fire and rescued the painting, for the millionth and final time. The Madonna was displayed in the Hesse’s castle for half a century after that.

A relative of the owner died in 1997 leaving double digit millions due in inheritance taxes. The family didn’t have that much scratch on hand, so they reluctantly put the Madonna for sale. The price tag was too hefty for any potential buyers, so the Hesse family cut a deal with the state. The painting would hang in museums on long-term loan and a significant portion of the debt would be forgiven.

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The house of Hesse got a killer deal. But years passed and an over-inflated art market tingled their spidey sense. The Darmstadt Madonna went on sale again in 2011 and was bought by industrial hardware king Reinhold Würth for around $70 million. 

Some members of the Hesse family on the negotiating team ran to the media about the sale price. Complaining that they could have gotten north of $110 million if stupid federal law didn’t forbid a sale that would send the Madonna outside Germany. Who cares that a cultural heirloom could go into storage somewhere as a result? That’s leaving upwards of $40 million on the table!

Though purportedly a cheapskate, Würth seems to be a stand-up guy. Having made good on promises to keep the painting available to the public on the regular. The Darmstadt Madonna is currently on view at the Bode in Berlin. After that, it’s off to Zurich and then to the Johanniterkirche in Schwabisches by Christmas. It’s plenty safe from world wars and religious conflict… for now. So, plan a trip to see it soon just in case.

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By Clayton

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Clayton Schuster

Sr. Contributor

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