In COVID-19 darkness, gift of a 'Moment of Light' to museum

If not for the pandemic, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum would have missed out on a classic Dutch 16th-century painting it so badly craved.

Instead, the work now graces a central hall of one of the world's most famous cultural institutions -- all because of a wealthy dealer in old masters elected to pay a very unusual tribute to COVID-19 victims.

When the museum reopened on June 1 after the Dutch lockdown was eased, General Director Taco Dibbits stood beaming before Bartholomeus Spranger's "Body of Christ Supported by Angels."

"This gift came and it was a moment of light," he said.

His joy contrasted sharply with the disappointment he felt at the early March TEFAF art fair — an annual jamboree in the southern Netherlands where culture meets capital. He thought the oil-on-copper painting was his to buy.

"We were standing there with our curators around the painting and saying how wonderful it was," he said. What they didn't know was that the picture had been sold almost on arrival at the fair.

Dibbits went back to Amsterdam and was forced to deal with the impact of the coronavirus on his institution. With the public shut out, he said, "we were losing 1 million [euros] a week. ... That's really a very substantial part of what we need to make the museum function."

So imagine Dibbits' surprise when he got a call from international dealer and collector Bob Haboldt, who owned the painting and had earlier said he sold it.

It turned out that as soon as the pandemic broke, the sale was canceled.

The globe-trotting Dutchman, who lives in France and Italy and has offices in Amsterdam, Paris, and New York, was tied down, just like everybody else.

"In isolation, I took the step that I would not think about its...

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