Will Van Dyck be saved for the nation?

November 14 2013

Image of Will Van Dyck be saved for the nation?

Picture: BG

Now here's a curious position for your humble correspondent to be in - a self-portrait by his favourite artist, which he was charged with researching and selling, has now been researched and sold. But!... to an overseas buyer. This means that a portrait which has remained in the UK ever since it was painted is poised to leave the country.

For the art dealing day-jobber in me, this has to be seen as a Good Thing. We bought the picture (in the thick of the global downturn) because we believed in it, and had the aim of adding value and selling it on. And I believe we have done that. For example, by showing that the self-portrait was that which belonged to Van Dyck when he died, and that it belonged to and was copied by his successor as court artist, Sir Peter Lely, we now know much more about its early history, and consequently its place in the creation of the British concept of artist as celebrity. Both Dobson and Cooper also emulated the picture, and it's not too much of a jump to see it as one of the defining images in the history of British portraiture, which in turn, is undeniably this country's leading contribution to the history of Western art. However, for the Van Dyck fan, it obviously pains me that the picture might leave the UK. And it doubly pains me that I might in some small way be responsible for that!

A month or so ago we attended the UK government's Export Licence Reviewing Committee - as representatives of the picture's buyer - at the Arts Council's new office. Notwithstanding the fact that we had to put the picture on an armchair (as above, they had no easel), it looked fantastic, and was temporarily blocked for export by the committee on all three 'Waverley' criteria (which is unusual). I felt a strange pride in Sir Anthony for pulling that off. The criteria are:

  • Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
  • Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  • Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Will a UK institution be able to raise the funds to stop the sale? The price is £12.5m (about 1/3 of a Koons Orange Dog). You can read more about today's news in The Guardian here, and more about the picture's history here.

Update - over at The Guardian a commenter comments:

Can't we just take a high-quality photograph of it and hang that on a wall? Is it the art or the rarity that gives it value?

Perhaps time for a new 3D printing option?

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