Philanthropist allows work by Memling to return to Bruges


A portrait of Francisco de Rojas can once again be seen in Bruges, the city where Hans Memling painted it in the 15th century. This is thanks to a donation by American philanthropist Bill Middendorf, with guidance from King Baudouin Foundation US. This completes the circle in more ways than one: a work of art is returning to the place where it was created, and a diplomat and philanthropist who is committed to the arts has donated a portrait of a diplomat who was a patron of the arts.

It is not every day that a museum has the opportunity to welcome a work of this calibre. “This is the first time we have received such an important donation”, said Till-Holger Borchert, artistic director of the Bruges Museums. Initially the work remains the property of KBF US, but it is immediately being given on long-term loan to the Bruges Museums, which will later become its owner.

The portrait depicts Francisco de Rojas, the scion of a noble Spanish family and Ambassador of Spain to the Burgundian court, and formed part of a triptych. “This is one of the few representations we have providing evidence of the Spanish presence in Bruges, when it was a trading centre in the Middle Ages”, said Borchert. “We do have a lot of textual archive material, but few pictorial representations. Now we have a painting of a person from an important family, and furthermore it is by Memling, who was a leading citizen at the time.”

Remarkable opportunity

“What makes this donation even more special is that there are thought to be only two or three Memlings that are privately owned and could still ‘move’, since all the others are already in museums”, said Thomas Leysen, who is both Chairman of the King Baudouin Foundation and Chairman of the Council for Major Works of Art (Topstukkenraad). “So this is one of the last paintings we will be able to bring ‘home’ to Bruges, and we are so happy to have done it.”

A diplomat with a passion for the arts

The work was donated by John William ‘Bill’ Middendorf, an American who has had a long and fruitful professional career including a period as US Ambassador to the Netherlands in the early 1970s. He is also an enthusiastic art lover, who composes, draws and paints - even at the age of 95 he is still drawing almost every day. His passion also led him to become a collector of works of art, particularly of old masters from the Low Countries. Bill Middendorf has always wanted to share his passion with others, and has donated works to institutions including the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Now he has made a donation to Belgium too.

Rare jewel

“In the past 55 years I have discovered Bruges and visited it regularly”, said Middendorf. “I see it as a rare jewel, largely preserved as it was in the Middle Ages. The beauty of the city and the art from past centuries draw me back there again and again.”

After the death of its former private owner, the work was temporarily returned to Bruges for an exhibition. Afterwards, in 2002, the heirs offered it for sale and Bill Middendorf purchased it. During that period he met museum director and expert Till-Holger Borchert in Bruges. “I appreciate Till-Holger Borchert, both as an art historian and for our friendship that has grown through the arts. All these aspects contributed to my decision to ensure that this work from my collection would be returned to Bruges.”

KBFUS ART facilitates donations

A major work of art of this kind cannot be simply gift-wrapped and placed in hand luggage. Donating art across borders involves complex cultural, legal and tax aspects. To help donors from the US with these, the King Baudouin Foundation US set up the KBFUS ART programme a few years ago. The donation of this work by Memling is a fine example of the role played by the King Baudouin Foundation’s network as a global philanthropic enabler, not only for donations of heritage items but also offering guidance with international philanthropic donations to projects or organisations, whether their work is social, cultural, medical, scientific or academic.

“I see Bruges as a rare jewel. This contributed to my decision to ensure that this work from my collection would be returned to Bruges.”
Bill Middendorf

“The guidance we received from KBFUS was vital in making it possible for the painting to return to Bruges”, said Till-Holger Bolchert. “Thanks to the process that has been created by the KBFUS for donations of works of art, everything went smoothly. It is so amazing, I can hardly believe it is happening.”

The painting can be viewed at the ’Memling Now’ exhibition at St. John’s Hospital (Memling Museum) from 1 October 2020 to 1 February 2021. Afterwards it will remain on long-term loan as part of the Memling Museum’s permanent collection.

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