Billionaire Calls $70 Million Holbein Oil a Good Buy: Interview

Reinhold Wuerth
Reinhold Wuerth, a German billionaire who made his fortune selling screws, purchased a painting of the Madonna by Hans Holbein. The painting will go on show at Wuerth's museum for medieval art in the southern German town of Schwaebisch Hall. Photographer: Volker Schrank/Adolf Wuerth GmbH via Bloomberg

Billionaire Reinhold Wuerth, who has collected art for more than 40 years, last year spent about $70 million for a Holbein painting of the Madonna. It was the highest price ever paid for an artwork in Germany.

The entrepreneur, who made his fortune transforming a family-run screw wholesaler into a global company, is sure she’s worth it. The 1525-8 “Madonna With the Family of Mayor Meyer” by Hans Holbein the Younger, will go on display starting Jan. 20 in Wuerth’s museum for late medieval art -- a 12th-century church in the pretty cobbled town of Schwaebisch Hall, 70 kilometers northwest of Stuttgart.

“I think it was a good buy,” he says in his spacious, book-lined office in the headquarters of Adolf Wuerth GmbH & Co. KG, where panorama windows offer sweeping views over the Swabian landscape around the village of Kuenzelsau.

“The Madonna makes a deep impression -- her face emits a wonderful radiance and she has an extremely beautiful smile,” Wuerth says. “If you like a painting that much, of course you think it would be nice to own it. So I bought it.”

Wuerth’s collection encompasses 14,000 works, by artists from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Anselm Kiefer. The 76-year-old pilot, who is visibly chuffed as he reports that his license was extended for another six months at a medical the day before, ranks 265th in Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires.

Screw Business

Forbes estimates his wealth at $4.1 billion, a figure Wuerth won’t comment on. The company he has owned since 1955 -- when it employed two salesmen -- has kept to its original product, focusing on screws, screw anchors and tools. It now has operations in 80 countries and last year grew 13 percent, with sales of 9.7 billion euros ($12.4 billion).

Wuerth declines to reveal exactly how much he paid for the Holbein. His art adviser Christoph Douglas, who brokered the sale, said in July that it cost more than 50 million euros. Commissioned by the Basel Mayor Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, it shows him and his family sheltered under the Madonna’s cloak.

“We don’t have a fixed budget for art, like public museums,” says Wuerth, dapper in a pinstripe suit with a pink tie and matching silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. “We buy when we want to, and for something special, we have a special budget. The advantage of being an entrepreneur is that you can make relatively free decisions -- you don’t need to rely on the approval of committees and bosses.”

Too Expensive

Wuerth appointed an art council two years ago to advise him on big-ticket purchases. He makes smaller acquisitions without consultation. He says he sometimes visits art fairs himself “but if I go, then it gets more expensive.” Acquisitions tend to come via direct approaches, he says.

He’s unlikely to pay a price comparable to the Holbein Madonna again, Wuerth says. He has two or three works by Gustav Klimt and would love a painting, yet the prices are too high.

“I am a businessman, and the business mind is still operating in the background when I’m collecting,” he says. “If I am offered three artworks at the same price, but one of the artists offers more price growth potential, then I would buy that one.”

Wuerth says he has regretted missed opportunities.

“Often in the past I neglected to buy a piece of art because I found it too expensive,” he says. “Five years later I have said: ‘I was such a stupid guy because I did not buy it at that time,’ because in between, the price went up four times or even 10 times.”

Forgery Scam

There are some acquisitions he rues, too. Last year it emerged that Wuerth owned two forgeries -- a fake Heinrich Campendonk, for which he paid 830,000 euros, and a forged Max Ernst work. The forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, was sentenced to six years in jail in October.

“We bought them from a dealer,” Wuerth says. “He was concerned for his reputation, and took the works back and swapped them for two or three other artworks which don’t completely make up for it, but compensate us by about two-thirds, so we were spared the worst.”

Wuerth’s eyes light up when he talks about flying -- enough to suggest that it is at least as much of a passion as art. Last year he flew his own Falcon 900EX to the Caribbean and to Taipei, and has 7,000 hours of flying experience as captain.

His working day is still at least 14 hours long, he says.

“Today I woke up at 5 a.m. and drove to Stuttgart at seven,” he says. “I had two events this morning, including a conference, and I have a business dinner tonight. I will get home about 10. I definitely have at least two full working lives behind me, if you take the union definition of a 35-hour week.”

Tax Evasion

In 2008, Wuerth was convicted of tax evasion and agreed to pay a fine to avoid trial. Soon after, he announced he would take on Austrian citizenship though he has no plans to relinquish his German citizenship.

“That was a reaction to this tax-evasion lawsuit I had hanging around my neck,” he says. “Now that wound has healed. I have a house in Salzburg, and we are there about half the time, and half the time here, when we are not traveling.”

Wuerth opened the Johanniterkirche in 2008, to exhibit the Fuerstenberg collection acquired in 2003. Like the Holbein, it was sold by an aristocratic family.

Before that purchase, his collection had comprised almost only works from the 19th and 20th century. They are on show at the Kunsthalle Wuerth, also in Schwaebisch Hall. In the museum’s foyer, an artistic display of the company’s products in a tower of glass cubes reminds visitors what made all this possible -- billions and billions of screws, sold over six decades.

“I would not have bought the Holbein Madonna 15 years ago because she wouldn’t have fitted into the collection,” Wuerth says. “She fits in now -- as a highlight.”

Can he imagine ever selling her?

“What’s in the collection stays in the collection,” says Wuerth, who has never sold a painting. “We will lend the picture for special occasions. But it has found its home here in Schwaebisch Hall. This is where it belongs now.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE