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June 7, 2020

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A rare COVID-19 blessing for Dutch art museum

IF not for the pandemic, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum would have missed out on a classic Dutch 16th-century painting it badly craved.

Instead, the work now graces a central hall of one of the world’s most famous cultural institutions — all because a wealthy dealer decided to pay a very unusual tribute to COVID-19 victims.

When the museum reopened on Monday after the Dutch lockdown eased, General Director Taco Dibbits stood beaming before Bartholomeus Spranger’s “Body of Christ Supported by Angels.”

“This gift came and it was a moment of light,” he said.

His joy contrasted sharply with the disappointment he felt at the early March TEFAF art fair — an annual jamboree in the southern Netherlands where culture meets capital. He thought the oil-on-copper painting was his to buy.

“We were standing there with our curators around the painting and saying how wonderful it was,” he said. What they didn’t know was the picture had been sold shortly after arriving at the fair.

Dibbits went back to Amsterdam and was forced to deal with the impact of the coronavirus on his museum.

With the public shut out, “we were losing a million euros (US$1.2 million) a week,” he said. “That’s really a very substantial part of what we need to make the museum function.”

So imagine Dibbits’ surprise when he received a call from international dealer and collector Bob Haboldt, who owned the painting and had earlier said he sold it.

It turned out as soon as the pandemic broke out, the sale was canceled.

The globe-trotting Dutchman, who lives in France and Italy and has offices in Amsterdam, Paris and New York, was tied down, just like everyone else.

“In isolation, I decided I would not think about its financial value,” he said. “Only its emotional value.”

He wouldn’t say how much the painting is worth, but “it is a big gift, no matter how you look at it.”

Haboldt decided to donate the painting “in memory of the victims of COVID-19, not only those who died but also those who suffered,” and to serve as inspiration to others to support the arts.

“I wanted it to go before a very big audience,” he said, and as an native of Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum was the obvious choice.

“The picture represents a big message,” Haboldt said.

“I hope people will stop in front of it for a moment and realize that although they look at a religious painting, they are looking at something timeless, full of compassion, mercy and hope.”



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