What we've also lost

December 21 2012

Image of What we've also lost

Picture: Christie's

Following my post below on items bought for UK public collections through the export licencing system, a reader writes:

It's worth pointing out that seven items were deferred by the committe in the year, worth a total of £74.6 million.  Three, with a total value of £44.8 were exported - or 43% of cases and 60% in value.

  1. A painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau, La Surprise (£17.5 million)
  2. A painting by Francesco Guardi, Venice: A View of the Rialto Bridge from the Fondamenta del Carbon (£26,697,250)
  3. A North Italian empire athénienne by Luigi Manfredini (£632,940)

But the press releases for these reports never draw attention to the complete picture.  

And it's a moot point whether the results were better than in the previous year when 7 objects worth a total of £65.8 million were exported (50% of cases but 92% by value).

Previously, in the days when the HLF was being mean about buying paintings, we could blame a lack of available funding for the loss of important works overseas. But now that the HLF is proving bountifully munificent, perhaps we should begin to ask instead about the acquisitional appetite of UK institutions. Buying pictures can be a lengthy and administratively tedious process. It needs curators and directors with determination and flair to drive it forward. This year we have seen thrillingly commendable efforts from museums like the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, who have respectively stopped a Manet and a Poussin from leaving our shores. They've shown, along with the Heritage Lottery Fund's help, that it is now possible to secure great works in even the most challenging circumstances. However, it's undeniably the case that there are some (not many, but enough) instutions who just don't have the oomph to mount acquisition campaigns. In my time as a dealer, I've learnt to differentiate between those museums who are always ready to make the effort to try and buy works, and those who aren't. It usually comes down to the enthusiasm of the staff involved.

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