Austrian Businessman Asks Government to Buy His Art Collection

The Essl Museum (image via Wikimedia)
The Essl Museum (image via Wikimedia)

The Austrian government is considering buying one of the country’s best-known private art collections in a bid to help save its owner’s company. Collector and businessman Karlheinz Essl has appealed to the Austrian minister of culture to purchase his 7,000-piece art collection, the Guardian reported. Essl is the founder of home improvement chain bauMax, which has stores throughout Eastern Europe and Turkey but is facing extensive financial trouble. According to the Austrian Times, the company “made a loss in 2012 and were given 78 million EUR [~$108 million] by the bank in the same year.” A spokesperson contacted by the Guardian denied that the company is on the verge of insolvency.

The Essl collection, which includes a large trove of postwar Austrian art, is valued on the books at €86 million, but some have estimated its market value as high as €260 million. If the government were to buy it, the money would go towards a restructuring of bauMax, said a company spokesperson. Essl himself is emphasizing that the bailout money would help save jobs: “It is not just about an art collection, which if destroyed would be a great loss to the Austrian cultural landscape,” he told the press. “It is about 4,000 jobs, of which 160 people have disabilities. That is why I want to offer the whole collection to the Republic of Austria.”

Christian Ludwig Attersee, "Torte mit Speisekugeln und Speiseblau" (1967), acrylic on canvas, in the Essl Museum (photo by Flickr user grey.beard.44)
Christian Ludwig Attersee, “Torte mit Speisekugeln und Speiseblau” (1967), acrylic on canvas, in the Essl Museum (photo by Flickr user grey.beard.44)

The collection is currently housed in the private Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg, Austria. A cheerful page on the museum’s site tells the story of Karlheinz and his wife, Agnes:

Agnes and Karlheinz Essl have a passion for collecting art. A coincidental meeting in New York in 1958 was the starting point: The young entrepreneur Karlheinz Essl met the gallery employee Agnes Schömer. In New York they found their love for contemporary art and for each other. …

Since 1999, their desire to give back to society and offer access to contemporary art through the presentation of their collection is the top priority in their private museum, the Essl Museum.

A government purchase would allow the collection to remain together in the country, presumably on public view, whereas a bauMax bankruptcy would give banks access to the art, likely resulting in sales to disparate, private entities. A government roundtable discussion on the issue will take place next week, with Essl, the minister of culture, representatives of major Austrian banks, the ministry of social affairs, and the ministry of finance all present, according to The Art Newspaper.

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