Art market

This Hans Memling painting failed to sell at Christie's—now its owner has given it back to Bruges where it was painted over 500 years ago

The work was offered for sale at £1.5m to £2.5m in 2019 but US collector Bill Middendorf has decided to give it to the Belgian city

Hans Memling's portrait of Francisco (?) de Rojas © Musea Brugge

The US philanthropist and former diplomat Bill Middendorf has donated a 15th-century altarpiece panel by Hans Memling to the Memling Museum in Bruges, the city where it was painted over 500 years ago. The donation was facilitated by the King Baudouin Foundation United States which, according to its website, helps US donors "navigate the cultural, legal and tax complexities involved in donating art overseas."

The oil on wood portrait was originally the left-hand panel of a triptych, which had an image of a woman reading on the right wing and an unknown scene as the central panel—likely a crucifixion. Thought to be of Francisco de Rojas, ambassador of Spain to the Burgundian Court, it is an early work by Memling dating to around 1470.

It is a generous gift, but it looks like Middendorf was struggling to sell it. In July last year, the panel failed to find a buyer when it was auctioned at Christie's in London with an estimate of £1.5m to £2.5m. The trade's theory was that the panel's poor condition and extensive restoration likely deterred buyers.

However, Till-Holger Borchert, the chief curator of the Groeningemuseum and the director of the Bruges Museums since 2014, says the painting "is one of the very few examples that we will have to remind us of the Spanish presence in Bruges during the Middle Ages. The city was an important trading hub at that time. While we have a lot of archives documenting the presence of Spanish merchants, we don’t have many images showing them. So having a depiction of a prominent Spanish family makes it very interesting, especially as it is by Memling, another prominent citizen of Bruges, and an extremely important artist.”

Borchert first saw the painting in the early 1990s when it was hanging in the home of collector Frederic W. Ziv in Cincinnati. After Ziv died in 2001, his heirs followed his wishes and lent the painting to an exhibition curated by Borchert in Bruges. “In fact, that is where I met Bill Middendorf,” Borchert says. The following year, in 2002, the painting was put up for sale at Sotheby's where it failed to sell with an estimate of £700,000 to £900,000. But Middendorf, bought it in a post-sale deal.

An avid collector of Dutch and Flemish paintings, Middendorf (full name John William Middendorf II) is now 95 and still sketches from his Rhode Island home. “I’ve been interested in art all my life. I’ve recorded all my children’s and grandchildren’s activities on paper over the past 50 or so years. I’ve just put them together in a three-volume book, and I’m still churning out five or six pieces a week, even though I’ve now lost most of my eyesight,” he says.

Middendorf served in the US Navy during the Second World War and later, in 1969, left a career in investment banking to become US Ambassador to the Netherlands before becoming Secretary of the Navy in 1974. “As ambassador, most of the time I was involved in trade negotiations and other rather static sorts of affairs. Art was such great relief from the hard grind of diplomacy and economic and military activities,” he says.