We are always talking about the factors that need to be considered before buying a work of art. One of the most important, at least to us, is a work’s condition. In a recent article in The Art Newspaper, Anna Brady discusses Bill Middendorf’s gift of a Han Memling (1430-1494) painting to the Memling Museum in Bruges.
In 2002, Hans Memling’s Portrait of a male donor, (Francisco de Rojas?) was offered for sale at Sotheby’s with an estimate of £700-£900,000 … it did not sell. After the sale, Middendorf bought the work for an undisclosed amount. In July of 2019, Middendorf offered the work at a Christie’s auction with a £1.5-2.5M estimate (titled: Portrait of a member of the De Rojas family, kneeling, full-length), again, it failed to sell. According to Brady’s article, The trade’s theory was that the panel’s poor condition and extensive restoration likely deterred buyers. It appears that the painting’s condition was an important factor in the work’s salability, or what made it unsalable.
So, what is a collector to do when this happens? Donate! Yes, the Memling Museum was happy to have the work in their collection. According to Till-Holger Borchert, the chief curator of the Groeningemuseum and the director of the Bruges Museums since 2014, 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.
Even though the painting is now part of an important museum collection, this story beautifully illustrates the need to be concerned with a work’s condition. Now do not get me wrong, many works of art have some level of restoration or conservation; however, those with extensive restoration can be difficult, if not impossible, to sell in the future.