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How Prince Charles did his royal best to bring Henry VIII portrait to London

The late Baron Heini Thyssen’s eye-popping valuation of Holbein painting stopped National Gallery loan, trustees’ minutes reveal

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The National Gallery was thwarted in an attempt to borrow Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII from Heini Thyssen despite Prince Charles’s best efforts, newly released gallery records reveal. The heir to the throne, who became a National Gallery trustee in the late 1980s, even flew one of the Queen’s aircraft to Lugano for talks with the collector, whose father, Heinrich, had bought the painting, Holbein’s only surviving portrait of the king, in the 1930s from the Spencer family. Coincidentally, Charles’s first wife, Diana, was the granddaughter of the seventh Earl Spencer, whose portrait was bought by Thyssen for £56,000.

The stumbling block to the loan was Thyssen’s insistence that the portrait was worth $55m (then £32m)—very much more than any painting had ever sold for at the time.

The story began at a meeting held on 5 May 1988. According to the minutes, the Prince “volunteered to use his good offices” with owners of paintings that the gallery wished to borrow. Charles quickly acted on his word, flying to Lugano nine days later to meet the industrialist and collector.

At the July trustees’ meeting, Jacob Rothschild, the gallery chairman at the time, reported that the Prince had written to Thyssen “reminding him of his offer to let the gallery have Holbein’s Henry VIII on long-term loan”. At their October meeting, Neil MacGregor, then director of the National Gallery, said that Thyssen would lend the Holbein “from next spring for a period of not more than a year”, subject to a UK government indemnity. The “long-term” loan had now become one year. By the trustees’ meeting in December, the period had been reduced to six months.

When the trustees met in February 1989, MacGregor reported that Thyssen was holding out for a valuation of $55m for government indemnity. The director pointed out that only a year earlier Thyssen had valued the portrait at $20m, when he had lent it to the Royal Academy of Arts. Although Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1889) had sold for £25m in 1987, the most expensive Old Master sold at auction had been Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (1495-1505), which went for £8m in 1985.

“The director thought the valuation now proposed was unrealistic, and feared that if he accepted the $55m figure this could be used to set the price if the picture were offered for sale to a British collection. In addition a new level of value for Old Master paintings would be set by such a figure,” the minutes record. MacGregor had, therefore, proposed $30m. As director, he was responsible to the Treasury for giving an accurate valuation for the work if theft or damage led to a claim.

The artist Lucian Freud then became involved. He had painted portraits of Rothschild and Thyssen, so knew both parties. Freud had told Rothschild he thought Thyssen believed he was being asked to insure the Holbein. Freud had got this wrong; the indemnity was the responsibility of the British government.

Thyssen had now provisionally promised his entire collection to Spain, despite efforts by the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to attract it to London, to be housed in a museum in Docklands. At the National Gallery board meeting in February 1989, the question arose as to whether the British might be able to secure the Holbein as a consolation prize.

Lord Alexander of Weedon, a trustee, delicately asked whether there would be a chance “to detach” the Holbein from the Madrid collection. But this did not happen and even the short-term loan was blocked by the disagreement over its indemnity value.

The whole collection later went to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, which opened in 1992. The Portrait of Henry VIII has only left the museum once, when it was lent for the three-month Holbein in England exhibition at Tate Britain in 2006-07. Prince Charles, who served as a trustee of the National Gallery from 1986 to 1993, returned earlier this year in a formal position, as the institution’s first royal patron. 

MacGregor recalls the affair as an “interesting episode… part of what we hoped would be a series of small exhibitions of great loans from private collectors”.

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