Tax squabble may force sale of €25m pre-Colombian art collection

Gift to Brussels museum is stalled by dispute between region and state



Belgium may lose one of the world’s greatest collections of pre-Colombian art, the €25m ($30m) collection of Dora Janssen, because of deadlock between its regional governments on inheritance tax laws.

Dora Janssen, the widow of the pharmaceutical company founder Paul Janssen, wanted to give the collection to Brussels’ Royal Museums of Art and History as payment in kind for €7m ($8.4m) estate tax due following her husband’s death in 2003.

The tax is owed to the regional government of Flanders, where Ms Janssen lives. However, she insists the works be added to the existing pre-Colombian collection at the Royal Museums, which belong to the federal state.

Ms Janssen is now considering selling the collection abroad because the gift has been blocked as the federal government and the Flanders region cannot agree on how Flanders should be compensated for the tax owed.

“For a year and a half they have been trying to find a solution. But I cannot wait indefinitely,” Ms Janssen told The Art Newspaper. She said she will pay the tax and may sell the collection to a foreign buyer if Belgium does not make a decision first.

“I will negotiate with the first person to come to me with a concrete proposal,” she said.

A special commission was set up to find a solution that would allow the collection to stay in Belgium, but could not do its work since Flanders did not put forward a representative to take part in discussions.

Ms Janssen said she believed the Flanders region wanted to prevent the collection going to Brussels. “By not making a decision, they still have the chance in the future to have me change my mind,” she said.

The affair is holding up other gifts to the state in Belgium, where the complex system of government often causes administrative delays. A decision on which Brussels museum can receive the art nouveau collection of Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet cannot be made until a court responds to a request by Flanders for a ruling on the Janssen case—a process expected to take several months.

Sergio Purini, the curator of American collections at the Royal Museums, told The Art Newspaper that the Janssen collection is possibly one of the two finest in the world. Amassed over 40 years, it comprises some 350 pieces covering nearly all the pre-Colombian cultures, including Mayan vases and 200 pieces of gold jewellery from Colombia.

“Her collection would truly complete the panorama of pre-Colombian art [at the museum],” he said. “It would be lamentable that such a collection should go to a private museum or collection.”

Some of the collection is on show at the Geneva Art and History Museum (until 23 April). It will be shown at the Royal Museums in September before going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. Ms Janssen said private collectors in several countries including the US were interested in the collection. Belgian media reported interest from collectors in Qatar and France.