Germany's 'screws king' showcases art collection

More than 400 artworks will be on display at the From Hockney To Holbein exhibition till Jan 10 next year.
More than 400 artworks will be on display at the From Hockney To Holbein exhibition till Jan 10 next year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
More than 400 artworks will be on display at the From Hockney To Holbein exhibition till Jan 10 next year.
Reinhold Wuerth (above).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BERLIN • He made his fortune with industrial hardware and used it to collect priceless art, from mediaeval treasures to modern masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Andy Warhol.

German billionaire Reinhold Wuerth, 80, known as the "screws king" for his global business empire, has since the 1960s built up one of Europe's largest and most glittering private art collections.

Last Friday, 400 of his works went on show in Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau gallery under the title From Hockney To Holbein - a crowning achievement for Wuerth, who built up the family business from humble beginnings in the post-war years.

Among the highlights of the show, set to run until Jan 10 next year, will be David Hockney's season cycle, sculptures by Henry Moore, modernist masterpieces by Picasso and Edvard Munch, and a 16th-century Madonna painting by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Wuerth, who retired from running the group in the 1990s, has focused on the almost 17,000-piece collection as his enduring passion, saying "that's the only thing I'm still keeping for myself".

Were it not for his expensive passion, he would be the archetypal corporate patriarch of the German "Mittelstand", the often rural- based and family-run businesses that make up the backbone of Europe's biggest economy.

Born in 1935, he started as an apprentice in the small hardware business, selling screws and bolts, which his father Adolf had started in 1945, as Germany lay in ruins after its World War II defeat.

When his father died suddenly in 1954, Wuerth was just 19 years old. He took over the family business, which at the time had just one other employee.

Germany's post-war "economic miracle" saw sales explode, with growth of 60 to 70 per cent a year, as the business started to deliver its goods directly to mechanics, workshops and building sites.

"Everyone needed screws and bolts," he recounted matter-of- factly.

Last year, the Wuerth Group - which makes assembly and fastening materials for the auto, construction and engineering sectors - employed 68,000 people and operated in about 80 countries, with an annual turnover of more than €10 billion (S$16 billion).

"I would never have believed that we would one day be that size," confessed one of Germany's richest men.

He started his hobby in the 1960s and has built up an art collection that spans many epochs and styles, with cubists, expressionists and contemporary artworks abundantly represented.

"Wuerth's talent lies in finding works - often directly from the artists - and in establishing connections," said the host venue in advertising the show, calling the businessman "a collector of collections".

In 2011, he laid down more than €50 million for the Madonna painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, in post-World War II Germany's most expensive art purchase.

Since the 1990s, works owned by him have been shown in about 15 European galleries and museums, including in France and Switzerland, as well as in company sites.

"Mr Wuerth wants everyone to enjoy his art," said director of the collection, Ms Sylvia Weber.

Ever the entrepreneur, Wuerth said over the years, his passion for art had "contributed greatly to the development of the group".

"People see that we're not just boring industrialists obsessed with growth," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Germany's 'screws king' showcases art collection'. Print Edition | Subscribe