Death duties force German prince to sell Renaissance masterpiece

Click to follow

A german prince is to sell one of the most important pieces of his country's Renaissance art to pay £8m inheritance tax.

Donatus, Prince of Hesse, is proposing to sell the 16th-century masterpiece known as The Darmstadt Madonna by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) to settle the bill.

The work, often described as the northern counterpart to the painting by Raphael known as The Sistine Madonna, could be worth £70m on the open market, although the precise value is complicated by state rules forbidding its removal from Germany. The state of Hesse has imposed an export bar because of its rarity and because its association with the country goes back more than a century and a half. Germany has no equivalent of the British and French systems of paying tax with works of art, nor does it have an independent tribunal to decide the value of a piece that may not leave the country.

The Darmstadt Madonna was painted for Jacob Meyer, a Swiss soldier and banker and a mayor of Basle, in 1526. It shows a Madonna of Mercy, with her cape spread over Meyer's family. Meyer is depicted with all his wives and children, living and dead.

The painting passed into the hands of the Prussian royal family, and arrived in Darmstadt by marriage between the Prussian and Hesse royal families in the 19th century. It has been held in the town's castle, now a museum, for 150 years. Bettina John, director of the museum, said: "This is one of the most important paintings of the German Renaissance. It is one of Hans Holbein's masterpieces and one of his most important religious works."

The reason for the sale is reported to be the death five years ago of the last of the southern branch of the Hesse family, Princess Margaret of Hesse, and the consequent merger of all its holdings with the northern, Kassel, branch of the family. It has occasionally been shown abroad, such as in the post-war years when it returned to Basle on loan in exchange for the Swiss taking care of undernourished Darmstadt children.