An Austrian Home Goods Magnate Just Donated a $103 Million Trove of Contemporary Art to Vienna’s Albertina Museum

The gift will form the core of the museum's new contemporary art center.

Karl Heinz Essl and Agnes Essl. Photo: Martin Schalk/Getty Images.

Vienna’s Albertina Museum received a massive donation of 1,323 artworks valued at an estimated at €90 million ($103 million) from collector and home improvement entrepreneur Karlheinz Essl and his wife Agnes. The gift, which includes pieces by Cindy Sherman, Tony Cragg, Karel Appel, Georg Baselitz, Alex Katz, and Neo Rauch, will form the core of the museum’s new contemporary art center, due to open next year.

The couple started buying postwar Austrian art by the likes of Maria Lassnig and Hermann Nitsch in the 1950s and later expanded their focus to include international artists in the 1990s. In 1999, the businessman opened a private museum outside Vienna with his wife and son to house their growing collection.

However, when Essl’s home improvement chain, Baumax, ran into financial problems in 2014, the family sold 60 percent of their substantial art holdings to industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteiner to keep their struggling company afloat. Creditors ultimately broke up the chain in 2014–2015, and the family subsequently closed its private museum in 2016. 

Under the terms of the gift, the Essl family will donate their portion of the works to the Albertina, while Haselsteiner agreed to give his stake in the collection to the museum on a 27-year, long-term loan to keep the original collection intact. Additionally, Haselsteiner’s eponymous family foundation will donate €40 million ($46 million) to fund the renovation of the building that will become the museum’s new contemporary art center in central Vienna.

“It has always been our desire to show our collection to as broad a public as possible in Austria’s capital city,” Karlheinz Essl said in a statement released by the Albertina. “I hope that this collection, which extends far beyond Austrian art, will enrich a large number of people intellectually, visually and emotionally to the same extent that it has provided us with joy over the past several decades.”

Meanwhile, Austria will contribute €1.7 million ($1.9 million) to fund the preservation and research of the Essl collection, in addition to a yet-to-be-decided sum to cover the running costs of the Albertina’s new contemporary art facility.

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