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Essl Sells: should Austria acquire the Essl Collection?

26 March 2014

In recent, recession-hit years, we’ve become used to hearing about the threat to national or regional art collections such as Detroit’s, earmarked for sale to shore up the wider community. This week, in something of an inversion of the familiar narrative, the collector Karlheinz Essl announced that he was willing to sell the contents of his private museum to the state, saving Austrian jobs and preserving its artistic heritage in one fell swoop.

Essl is the founder of the financially troubled DIY firm, bauMax, where 4000 jobs may depend on the deal. The collection, most of which is housed at the non-profit Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg, comprises over 7000 works of post-war and contemporary art, with a particular focus on Austrian artists. By offering it to the Austrian state, Essl hopes to avoid breaking up the collection, an outcome which he told local media would ‘be a great loss to Austrian cultural landscape’.

It certainly sounds like the best solution to the company’s woes, but it’s also quite a clever one – can Austria really publicly turn down such a deal? The country has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the European Union and wants to keep it that way. It has also benefited culturally from the establishment of the museum, and to see it dismantled, and jobs in other sectors lost, presumably wouldn’t go down well. But acquiring the collection would be expensive at a time of ongoing budget cuts. The collection has an estimated book value of around €84 million but could easily fetch more on the market.

Last month, Portugal’s plan to sell a set of Miró paintings, which it acquired almost by accident as part of a bank bailout, met with angry protests from those who believed the government should preserve its cultural assets. Would such anger extend to the loss of a privately-owned but publicly-loved collection? As long as companies, individuals and countries continue to be rocked in the wake of the financial crisis, these sorts of exchanges and discussions about what belongs where will proliferate.

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