When word leaked out three years ago that a German family was negotiating the sale of a celebrated Holbein painting to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, government officials in Berlin moved swiftly and angrily to block the purchase.
Now, that 16th-century masterwork, "Madonna With Basel Mayor Jakob Meyer and His Family," is on view in the United States for the first time in a widely anticipated exhibition at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
The show, "Hesse: A Princely German Collection," provides both a rare public glimpse of one of the finest private art collections in Europe and an indirect primer on German laws governing cultural patrimony: six paintings in the show, including the Holbein, are on that country's list of "unexportable national treasures."
The last time the Hessians invaded these shores, of course, they were mercenaries aiding the redcoats in the Revolutionary War. This time, the invasion is being welcomed as a diplomatic coup.
The exhibition was mapped out to show the cultural side of a family whose history has been intertwined with Germany's, and much of Europe's, since the 13th century, when the Hesses became princes of the Holy Roman Empire.
While not royal themselves, the Hesses married into virtually every royal house in Europe, especially Britain's and Russia's. They produced four czarinas, including the last, Alexandra, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria who was assassinated with her husband, Nicholas II, in 1918, as well as Alexandra's brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig, who sponsored the late-19th-century artists' colony in Darmstadt that helped develop Jugendstil, the German form of Art Nouveau.
Along the way, the Hesse family amassed what may be the largest and richest private art collection in Germany, and one of the best in Europe. The Holbein alone was conservatively valued at $100 million when the family considered selling it to the Getty to pay off a multimillion-dollar tax bill that will come due in the next decade. Although German officials put a stop to the sale, they eventually acceded to the idea of allowing the Holbein and the five other "unexportable" works - including three German Romantic paintings by Carl-Philipp Fohr - to go to Portland as part of the Hesse show.
"I've been trying to do this for a long time," said Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse, the 79-year-old family patriarch, adding that he wanted Americans to know more about German culture. "I'd be happy if they learn a little bit of Hessian history - if they see the art, they'd get curious and come over and be visitors here."
His first-born son and heir, Prince Donatus, who oversees the family's business interests (and tax problems), said he also hoped to see the family's hotels, wines and museums promoted. Chief among them are the Hessische Hof Hotel in Frankfurt and the Schlosshotel Kronberg in a nearby suburb; wine production of about 300,000 bottles a year, mostly Riesling; and Schloss Fasanerie, a 180-room castle near the medieval city of Fulda that since the 1950's has held most of the Hessian treasures.
Visitors to the German properties and the Portland exhibition will be taking in a lot of little-seen material. Members of the German nobility, which lost its privileges but not its titles upon the creation of the Weimar Republic in 1919, were just as enthusiastic as their British counterparts about acquiring art but far less willing to let the public see their holdings. Last year, when a kunsthalle in Munich displayed works drawn from several princely families, it was the first time many Germans got a look at this art. Although it is difficult to verify, some art experts believe that the Hesses have the most to show, largely because they have not sold any of the art that they have accumulated over the centuries. By contrast, the House of Hanover sold thousands of items in October in a multiday sale conducted by Sotheby's that raised nearly $50 million.
The Hesses, for reasons that Landgrave Moritz and Prince Donatus said they did not know, made a deal with the government in the 1920's that is far more restrictive than deals made by other families. It obliges them to retain and care for all the art treasures that they owned at the time, and much of what they would buy in the future, unless they were to receive a German court's permission to sell. That, of course, was good news for the Portland Art Museum, which had much to choose from.
The museum was well positioned to field the show. In 2000, it was the site of the exhibition "Stroganoff: The Palace and the Collections of a Russian Noble Family," which was initiated when the socialite Deeda Blair introduced Hélène de Ludinghausen, the last Stroganoff, to John Buchanan, the Portland museum's director. Ms. Blair also matched up Mr. Buchanan and Landgrave Moritz.
Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, the Portland museum's curator of European art, said the problem was choosing the objects that would define 500 years of German culture and taste through the eyes of one family with a rich past. Her choices include four portraits by the renowned 19th-century court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter; an 18th-century gilded Rococo coach; a stunning and massive neo-Classical gilt-bronze centerpiece by Karl Friedrich Schinkel; examples of Berlin, Sèvres and Kelsterbach porcelain; intricately carved German furniture pieces; and Jugendstil decorative objects. There is even a 33-piece silver Rococo Revival traveling toilette service that was part of a czarina's dowry.
Chronologically, the exhibition picks up the Hesse story about 1500, with Flemish tapestries, and ends with examples of Jugendstil from Darmstadt.
The family's history did not end there, of course, and the exhibition catalog continues the tale. During the 1930's and 40's, Landgrave Moritz's father, Philipp of Hesse, knew Hitler. Initially, he joined the Nazi party, as did hundreds of members of German princely families. He even purchased artworks in Italy, where he often lived with his wife, Mafalda, a daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III, for an art museum Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria.
As the war intensified, however, Philipp began to distance himself from Hitler, and after Italy dropped out of the war in the summer of 1943, Hitler imprisoned Philipp and sent Mafalda to the Buchenwald camp, where she died. Philipp was freed by American troops in 1945 but was arrested by the Allies, brought to trial in 1947, and eventually released as a minor offender.
The war also affected the art. The Nazis confiscated some paintings, many of which have never been returned. After the war, American soldiers stole "souvenirs," largely jewelry, some of which was returned voluntarily and some after lawsuits. Paintings, furniture and much jewelry are still missing, including several tiaras that were probably broken up decades ago.
Barring a flood of tourists into Hesse properties, the Portland exhibition will not help the family solve its tax problem. But it will ease the custodial burden the state placed on the family decades ago. Over the last few years, the Portland Art Museum has paid for the cleaning or restoration of about 70 percent of the works in the exhibition, which runs through March 19.