Who gets what if the Scots leave? (ctd.)

March 6 2014

Image of Who gets what if the Scots leave? (ctd.)

Picture: Daily Record

A few months ago, I wondered how an independent Scotland would approach the question of its, and the rest of the UK's, art collections. I also raised the issue of what happens with the current UK-wide export controls. Now, in The Art Newspaper, David Black also asks 'will the Scots sack the British Museum?'

If we really are talking about a national divorce in this case—and let’s not forget the polls tell us it is highly unlikely—it would be difficult to see how the thorny issue of a division of spoils could be avoided. The pain could, however, be mitigated if the institutions themselves, unlike our politicians, could begin to consider one or two preliminary ideas, at least in abstracto.

The outstanding collection of around 1,400 Old Master drawings and prints that the British Museum acquired from the estate of the Scottish clan chief John Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1895 could certainly be the subject of a cross-border concordat. This single acquisition, which includes important works by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Verrocchio, among others, raised the museum to the same level as the Louvre overnight. There is no reason why these could not, from time to time, be shared with Scotland on an agreed loan basis. 

Similarly, the Tate could release a number of drawings by William Blake that have a Scottish provenance. Even the British Library could help out. It is something of an anomaly that it holds the country’s most significant collections of Pictish and Celtic survey drawings, most of them Scottish. It would hardly be much of an intellectual sacrifice to send them north.

On the other hand, even if Scotland does opt for independence, the subject may never come up. I contacted the office of the Scottish government’s culture minister, the SNP’s culture spokesman in Westminster and the Scottish National Party press office in Edinburgh to ascertain their views on the matter. I have yet to hear from any of them. Perhaps they don’t much care—in which case the curators of Millbank and Great Russell Street can probably rest easy in their beds.

I wish I could be as relaxed about the possible outcome, but I have to say I'm not so sure. I've recently moved to Edinburgh, and my feeling is that there may well be a 'Yes' vote in September. Of course, art will come way down the list of priorities in any subsequent negotiation, so there's a risk things will be rushed through. I have no idea what they'll want to do with the Royal Collection, for example. Incidentally, I see on their website that the Royal Collection Trust is a 'company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales'.

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