Christian 8.'s Loan from Thorvaldsen

A well-kept secret

As far as is known, no previous attempt has been made to describe the events surrounding the large sum of money loaned by Thorvaldsen to the Danish prince Christian (8.) FrederikI in 1821, and which the prince subsequently had difficulty repaying. The reason for this silence may be that both the parties to the loan and the others involved shielded the loan with so much discretion—indeed, with such secrecy—that later generations have had difficulty getting a clear view of the matter at all.

Christian Frederik himself omitted any hint of the affair in his otherwise quite detailed diaries and travel entriesII. Nor did Just Mathias ThieleIII mention the loan in his biographyIV of Thorvaldsen. This last is noteworthyV, as Thiele was otherwise eager to cite letters and describe events that shed light on Thorvaldsen’s relations with high-ranking personages.

That the affair of the loan has now come to light is partly due to the fact that the certificate of indebtedness, along with 27 related letters and drafts, have been published and made searchable in The Thorvaldsens Museum ArchivesVI. These 28 documents were exchanged among three people: Thorvaldsen, Christian Frederik, and the latter’s private secretary, Johan Gunder AdlerVII. The narrow circle of initiates indicates that no outsiders were involved; and Thorvaldsen did not gossip, at least not in writing. This allowed the loan to sink to the bottom of history as a well-kept secret—until now.

F.C. Gröger, Prins Christian Frederik, 1813-1814, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg Slot, A 4577 Horace Vernet, Portræt af Thorvaldsen i færd med at modellere Vernet-busten, 1833, Thorvaldsens Museum

The loan and its conditions

During Christian Frederik’s grand European tour of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England in 1818-1822VIII, the prince loaned money from Thorvaldsen, as emerges from the certificate of indebtedness dated 1.4.1821IX, in the amount of 9000 Roman scudi, with annual interest of 5%, i.e., 450 scudi. The 9000 scudi were equivalent to ca. 238 kgX of pure silver.

According to the certificate of indebtedness, Christian Frederik was to pay interest on the loan, but not amortize (regularly pay down) the principal. This was, in other words, a kind of “interest-only loan,” in which the principal was to be paid back in its entirety only after the loan was called in by one of the parties to it.

Interest on the loan was paid biannuallyXI eleven timesXII in all, for a total of 2475 scudi, until 9.12.1826XIII, when Thorvaldsen called in the loan and requested that the full amount be made available to him via the TorloniaXIV banking firm. The reason for this—as he related to the prince’s private secretary, Johan Gunder Adler—was that he planned to produce a colossal bronze-cast goddess of victoryXV in a horse-drawn carriage at his own expense, and so needed to liquidify his outstanding assets.

Breach of contract

Despite §1 of the certificate of indebtedness, which affirms that the loan must “unalterably” (“uvægerligt”) be repaid to Thorvaldsen no later than three months after termination of the agreement, Christian Frederik had to balk at paying the full amount on time, as for various reasons he was short of money. Instead, it was suggested via AdlerXVI that Thorvaldsen could receive the money gradually. Specifically, the wish was expressed that Thorvaldsen redeem as little as possible of the debt in 1827, and wait with the remainder until 1828 and 1829, by which point it would be “less difficult for the prince” to repay the loan’s principal.

Thorvaldsen did not respond to this breach of contract with anger. Rather, he wroteXVII back to the prince in a friendly—and slightly ironic—tone:

“I thank your Royal Highness most humbly for taking on the burden of administering the sum of moneyXVIII belonging to me. Without a doubt, I could hardly have found a better place to keep it.”

In the continuation of this letterXIX, Thorvaldsen repeated his wish to recover the money, but now offered a deeper explanation. The money was to be used not only for the goddess of victory, but also to pay for the marble carving of his works, as he planned to “leave behind a rather select collection, instead of money.” This is the first time Thorvaldsen formulated his idea of a “Thorvaldsens Museum”XX in writing, and so the full text must be reproduced here:

“My intention, namely, is to have a monument be cast in bronze depicting the goddess of victory in natural size on a triumphal carriage drawn by two or four horses. Beyond this, I have many other works that I have produced or will produce in marble at my own expense. When I add to this my collection of ancient and modern artworks, which multiply daily, I hope to leave behind a rather select collection, instead of moneyXXI.”

In other words, the 9000 scudi were to be used to initiate the establishment of Thorvaldsens Museum. It is worthy of note that Thorvaldsen’s conception of the museum and its contents was realized so consistently in the completed museum, which only opened 21 years laterXXII. Thorvaldsens Museum contains Thorvaldsen’s own artworks as well as his collections of ancient and modern art, and is crowned by a triumphant goddess of victory in a quadriga,XXIII situated on the museum’s roof.

In short, Thorvaldsen had to wait to withdraw the money he needed to kick-start his museum project. He acceded to Adler’s request for a postponement: not only did he withdraw the money a little at a time, but he also waited until 1831 to recover the entire loaned sum. We can only guess whether this was due to special consideration for Christian Frederik and his financial situation—or whether Thorvaldsen’s own plans were delayed for other reasons.

Inscriptions on the certificate of indebtednessXXIV indicate that Thorvaldsen withdrew the 9000 scudi from Torlonia gradually and in three steps:

Thyra Tønder, Johan Gunder Adler, u.å., Oslo Museum, OB.00300

Forgiveness of the Prince’s debt

In a letter dated 12.8.1828XXV, Adler remarked conscientiously that because Thorvaldsen had not yet begun withdrawing his money from Torlonia, he was entitled to twoXXVI biannual interest payments, which Adler would take care of paying as soon as Thorvaldsen wished.

No response to this by Thorvaldsen is extant today. But on 9.5.1829XXVII, Thorvaldsen informed Adler that he would now have to withdraw a portion of the principal—without mentioning with a single word the accumulated interest to which he would have been entitled during the preceding period of time (from December 9, 1826 to May 9, 1829), nor the future interest that would accrue to him on the remainder of the principal. This can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In the next section, several different hypothesesXXVIII will be offered to explain why Thorvaldsen did not demand the interest payments to which he was entitled from Christian Frederik, but instead chose to forgive the prince that portion of his remaining debt.

Generosity and a power play: possible reasons for Thorvaldsen’s forgiveness of the prince’s debt

All in all, Thorvaldsen forgave Christian Frederik 1800XXIX Roman scudi in interest debt. This corresponds to ca. 47.5 kg of silver, or 1881XXX rigsdaler / 3762XXXI rigsbankdaler, which were the Danish monetary units in use before and after 1813XXXII, respectively.

For a better sense of the size of this sum, it may help to consider that a professor at the Academy of Arts in Copenhagen received an annual salary of 400 rigsdalerXXXIII in 1805. In 1829, after the Danish state bankruptcy and subsequent deflation, we find that, in the household budget of the newly-married Princess CarolineXXXIV and Crown Prince Ferdinand, the sum of 17000 rigsbankdalerXXXV was set aside as wages for the 55 workers who made up their court staff and servantry. 1800 scudi was thus a sizable sum, corresponding approximately to the annual salaries of four and a half professors or twelve employees of the court. This was the amount Thorvaldsen forfeited by refraining from demanding the final interest payments due to him from Christian Frederik.

What, then, were Thorvaldsen’s reasons for forgiving the debt owed to him?

1) It might be thought that Thorvaldsen was financially unsophisticated, and gave little thought to the lost income. This, however, seems implausible, given the precision and care with which Thorvaldsen otherwise treated the transaction. Judging by the extant correspondence, Thorvaldsen was fully conversant with the certificate of indebtedness, the inscriptions recording interest payments, the dates, the signatures, and the other formalia.

2) Alternatively, Thorvaldsen’s forgiveness of the prince’s remaining debts might be thought to be an expression of the sculptor’s generosity of characterXXXVI. Perhaps it pained Thorvaldsen that the prince was reduced to borrowing money. Perhaps he thought it downright embarrassing that the prince could not repay the loan on time. Perhaps he believed it would add insult to injury to demand “minor interest payments” under such circumstances.

3) Still another possibility is that, by forgiving the remaining debt, Thorvaldsen wished to express his thanks to Christian Frederik for supporting him—both as a private individual and in his capacity as President of the Academy of Fine ArtsXXXVII in Copenhagen—both directly and indirectly, through numerous commissionsXXXVIII.

4) Next, Thorvaldsen’s forgiveness of the remaining debt could have been part of a power play: the sculptor might have wished to have a bit of viable “dirt” on Denmark’s monarch-to-be. For by generously and discreetly forgiving the outstanding interest, Thorvaldsen put the prince into a debt of gratitude as well as money. And what might Thorvaldsen have achieved by doing so? Perhaps it suited Thorvaldsen, who was working to make his museum in Denmark a reality, that Christian Frederik thereby gained special motivation to support his cause before the kingXXXIX, whose approval of the museum project was necessary. The money held up by Christian was “museum money,” after all.

5) Finally, Thorvaldsen’s forgiveness of the remaining debt could have been an artifact of his liberal political stance. Christian Frederik departed a land suffering from stagnation and strong deflation, and embarked on a long, expensive journey with his young wife and son, along with a large followingXL of attendants and ladies of the court. He made grand purchases of art, gifts, and things for the homeXLI, but the large loan he took out from Thorvaldsen, and his delay in repaying it, attest to a prince who was living beyond his means. Perhaps it amused Thorvaldsen, in the quiet of his own mind, to see a prince bedecked in borrowed feathers. Both by extending the loan at first, and later by partly forgiving it, Thorvaldsen revealed—both subtly and unimpeachably—that the absolute monarchy’s basis (at least its financial basis) lay not in God, but in a perfectly ordinary man—namely, Thorvaldsen himself.

A liberal supports a conservative partisan of the Unitary State

It turns out that Christian Frederik’s debt to Thorvaldsen was only a small portion of a larger financial morass. The Danish historian Marcus RubinXLII, who was also director of Denmark’s national bank, made a study of “the royal family’s extraordinary consumption” and described how the state treasury had to disburse large additional sums to Christian Frederik in order to fill gaps in his finances. Rubin writesXLIII:

“Even stranger were the additional sums disbursed. In 1822, Prince Christian Frederik received in part £3,000 to travel to England, and in part 130,000 Rbdl. [Rigsbankdaler] to cover a debt that had arisen as a result of poor management of his royal household. In 1831, the FinancesXLIV had to cover a new debt on his behalf of 100,000 mk. bancoXLV to DonnerXLVI, and loan him 20,000 Rbdl. in addition. On that occasion, however, the kingXLVII ordered MøstingXLVIII to confer with the prince’s cabinet secretary, state councillor AdlerXLIX, about means to prevent such things in the future, ‘as our finances will not then be in a position to cover such extraordinary expenses.’”

Christian Frederik’s own diaries and notes revealL that, in 1826, he had incurred an additional debt of 141,000 marks banco to the Danish bank director and merchant Conrad Hinrich DonnerLI, who is mentioned in the above citation. This debtLII was also assumed by the state treasury, though Christian Frederik was obliged to make annual amortization payments.

These various debts and obligations, resulting from the fact that Christian Frederik lived an aristocratic lifestyle beyond his means, were also the reason why he could not immediately repay the 9000 scudi when Thorvaldsen requested them in 1826.

Both Thorvaldsen’s loan to Christian Frederik and his partial forgiveness of it were high-minded gestures. It must have been a humiliating affair for Christian Frederik to receive “charity” from a man who had achieved total financial freedom by his own industriousness. In that sense, the episode of the loan was also a political affair, though the extent to which Thorvaldsen was aware of this has not been documented. Namely: Christian Frederik, a conservative partisan of the Unitary State, was financially supported for a decade by a liberal- and high-minded artist, and the hierarchical relations of power between prince and subject were reversed. In this sense, Thorvaldsen contributed indirectly to the emergence of cracks in Denmark’s absolute monarchy—a system that he certainly did not join, but which he never criticized openly. This is one of the many ways in which the affair of the loan is both paradoxical and fascinating.



  1. The Danish prince Christian (8.) Frederik.

  2. Christian Frederik visited Thorvaldsen on March 30, 1821 and again two days later (on April 2), but recorded no mention of the loan on either day, nor even on the intervening day (April 1, 1821), when the certificate of indebtedness was signed. Cf. Fabritius, Friis & Kornerup (ed.), op. cit., 1973, p. 335; see also the documents associated with the topic Christian 8.’s Diaries and Travelogue.

  3. The Danish author, secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts, collector of folktales, museumophile, and librarian Just Mathias Thiele.

  4. Cf. Thiele III, op. cit.

  5. I owe thanks to art historians Kira Kofoed and Karen Benedicte Busk-Jepsen for drawing my attention to other noteworthy “sins of omission” by Thiele. On this see their respective articles History of the Archives and The Bronze Letter, along with the biography of Wilhelm von Huth.

  6. See the documents in the Archive related to the topic Christian 8.’s Loan at Interest.

  7. Christian Frederik’s private secretary—and later cabinet secretary—Johan Gunder Adler.

  8. This journey lasted from May 21, 1818 to August 26, 1822. Cf. Fabritius, Friis & Kornerup (ed.), op. cit., 1976, pp. 611-613; and see also the documents associated with the topic Christian 8.’s Journey Abroad 1818-1822.

  9. Cf. Christian Frederik’s certificate of indebtedness, dated 1.4.1821.

  10. The silver content of a Roman scudo was 26.42 grams. Accordingly, the 9000 scudi represented approximately 238 kg of pure silver; cf. the Related Article on Monetary Units.

  11. Biannually, in April and in October.

  12. Thorvaldsen was himself supposed to indicate on the certificate of indebtedness that the biannual interest payments had been correctly paid. Thorvaldsen did this diligently the first ten times, but for some reason never came to record the eleventh and final biannual interest payment of 225 scudi, due October 1826; cf. Johan Gunder Adler, 17.10.1826.

  13. Cf. the letter dated 9.12.1826 from Thorvaldsen to Johan Gunder Adler.

  14. The banking firm of Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia, who took responsibility for many of Thorvaldsen’s financial affairs.

  15. In 1827, Thorvaldsen began sketching this statue of the Goddess of Victory—cf. A48, A49, C328v, C560v—but it was H.W. Bissen who, during the period 31.3.1844-18.9.1848, realized the colossal statue of Victoria with her Quadriga [Four-in-hand], erected on the roof of Thorvaldsens Museum.

  16. * Cf. the letter dated 16.1.1827 from Johan Gunder Adler to Thorvaldsen.

  17. Cf. the letter dated 4.2.1827 from Thorvaldsen to Christian (8.) Frederik.

  18. In a draft letter dated no later than 4.2.1827, Thorvaldsen wrote “a small sum.” Ultimately, however, he decided that this phrase was too arrogant to use with a prince who had fallen on hard times, and excised the phrase from the final version.

  19. Cf. the letter dated 4.2.1827 from Thorvaldsen to Christian (8.) Frederik.

  20. See also the documents related to the topic The Establishment of Thorvaldsens Museum.

  21. A draft letter contains a concluding sentence that was omitted in the final version, which reads: “… collection, by means of which I hope to work, also after my death, for the dissemination of beauty and genuine artistic refinement.”

  22. Thorvaldsens Museum opened on 17.9.1848.

  23. In 1827, Thorvaldsen began sketching this statue of the Goddess of Victory—cf. A48, A49, C328v, C560v—but it was H.W. Bissen who, during the period 31.3.1844-18.9.1848, realized the colossal statue of Victoria with her Quadriga [Four-in-hand], erected on the roof of Thorvaldsens Museum.

  24. Cf. Christian Frederik’s certificate of indebtedness, dated 1.4.1821.

  25. Cf. the letter dated 12.8.1828 from Johan Gunder Adler to Thorvaldsen.

  26. The biannual interest payments were disbursed in April and October. This means that in fact three, and not two, of these due dates fell between Thorvaldsen’s letter calling in the loan, dated 9.12.1826, and Adler’s letter dated 12.8.1828. The reason for this discrepancy remains undetermined.

  27. Cf. the letter dated 9.5.1829 from Thorvaldsen to Johan Gunder Adler.

  28. I am indebted to the art historian Ernst Jonas Bencard for important hypothetical input on this point.

  29. This number was calculated as follows:

  30. The silver content of a rigsdaler species was 25.281 grams. Cf. the Related Article on Monetary Units.

  31. The silver content of a rigsbankdaler species was 12.64 grams. Cf. the Related Article on Monetary Units.

  32. See the Related Article on Monetary Units.

  33. Cf. the letter dated 15.6.1805 from the Academy of Fine Arts to Thorvaldsen.

  34. The oldest daughter of King Frederik 6., Princess Caroline, who had just married Crown Prince Ferdinand (1792-1863).

  35. Cf. Rubin, op. cit., p. 283.

  36. See also the documents related to the topic Thorvaldsen’s Helpfulness.

  37. The Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

  38. See, for example, the following Related Articles:

  39. Namely, Frederik 6., until his death in 1839.

  40. Christian Frederik, Caroline Amalie, and Frederik 7., accompanied by the following eleven people (cf. Fabritius, Friis & Kornerup (ed.), op. cit. 1973, p. 62):

  41. The detailed travel diaries of Christian Frederik contain additional examples of jewelry, clothes, paintings, sculptures, china, and other purchases made on the trip; cf. Fabritius, Friis & Kornerup (ed.), op. cit., 1973 and 1976. See also the Related Articles Christian 8.’s Table Decoration and Commission for the Danish Royal Family for more on the specific items bought from Thorvaldsen.

  42. The Danish statistician, historian, and director of Danmarks Nationalbank (Denmark’s central bank), Marcus Rubin (1854-1923).

  43. Cf. Rubin, op. cit., p. 283.

  44. The royal finances—that is, the state treasury.

  45. A “mark banco,” a unit of account deriving from Hamburg. One rigsbankdaler species was equivalent to three marks banco.

  46. The Danish bank director, wholesaler, councillor of state, and later privy councillor Conrad Hinrich Donner.

  47. King Frederik 6.

  48. The Danish minister of the privy council, minister of finance, and Chancellor of the Orders (i.e., administrator of the monarchy’s Chapter of the Royal Orders of Chivalry) J.S. Møsting.

  49. Christian Frederik’s private secretary—and later cabinet secretary—Johan Gunder Adler.

  50. Cf. Sjøqvist (ed.), op. cit., p. 22. See the entries by the following dates:

  51. The Danish bank director, wholesaler, councillor of state, and later privy councillor Conrad Hinrich Donner.

  52. It remains somewhat unclear whether the two amounts due to Conrad Hinrich Donner—141,000 marks banco in 1826, and 100,000 marks banco in 1831—overlapped to some extent, or whether Christian (8.) Frederik indeed owed Donner a total of 241,000 marks banco.

Last updated 04.04.2018