How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait

April 23 2015

Image of How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

Regular readers will have been following the Met's restoration of Charles Le Brun's Portrait of Everhard Jabach and His Family. Now, the Met's head of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, has written a fascinating blog on how the Met acquired the work:

It goes back to the evening of February 25, 2013. I was in London for a conference, walking back to my hotel after dinner with my wife. It was the evening before my return flight to New York. Checking my emails, I noticed one from a colleague in one of the major auction houses: "Keith, next time you are in London, let me know. I have something important to show you." Despite the late hour, I quickly got in touch with him. There was a scramble, and the next morning my wife and I found ourselves making an unanticipated trip to a warehouse where, propped against the back wall of a large, gray, box-like space, was Le Brun's portrait of the Jabach family. My wife was overwhelmed by the sight, finding the picture completely compelling. A brief conversation ensued about its history, the circumstances of its sale, and the price. That the Metropolitan would be able to acquire the work seemed to me dubious or, at best, a long shot, for apart from the price, could one imagine that a picture of this importance—one that had been in the United Kingdom since 1794—would ever be given an export license?

Back in New York, I made a call to the director of the National Gallery, London: after all, there was no point in trying to move forward with acquiring the work if the outcome was already scripted and the National Gallery had plans. Much to my surprise, I was told they had another priority [a painting by George Bellows] and would not attempt to purchase the picture. The door had suddenly opened—or was at least ajar. So I sat down with Tom Campbell, our director, and also met with my colleagues in the Department of European Paintings. All agreed that if this work could be had, it would be one of the Met's great acquisitions.

Negotiations were handled with extreme discretion over the ensuing months, and in September—seven months after I first saw the picture—we found ourselves in the enviable position of being able to make an offer, thanks the same person who had come to our aid so many times over the past forty years and whose name was already attached to some of the signature works in the collection. Our debt to her is very great. Papers were done up, and I presented the picture to the Museum's Acquisition Committee in October for approval. The next step was the application for the export license, which was being handled by Christie's.

The matter of granting an export license went before the Reviewing Committee of the Arts Council of the United Kingdom in January 2014, with the anticipated postponement of a decision until May 9 to allow a British buyer to step forward with a plan to acquire the work. By what I believe was a piece of extraordinary luck, a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was also up for review at around the same time. Van Dyck, of course, had an active career in Britain and his portraits established the model for the next two centuries. His oval, bust-length self-portrait captured the attention of the press as well as the public. "Saving it for the nation" became a priority, and this, I believe, deflected attention from the Le Brun—to my mind a vastly more important and significant work. On May 9, I received the news that an export license had been granted.

This account is interesting on many levels. First, is the picture really the dramatically important work Christiansen thinks it is? Certainly, it's a great work, but regular readers won't be surprised to hear that I think Van Dyck's self-portrait is an infinitely more important work in the history of British art. Naturally, the Met are very proud of their acquisition. 

Second, should the National Gallery's acquisition of the George Bellows painting have gotten in the way of the Le Brun in such a manner? Ie, is it right that a mere question of timing stopped the National making an effort to buy the painting? Probably not, but then at £7.3m something had to give. The Bellows was £15.6m. Can we stop everything? Probably not, and we shouldn't forget either that the Bellows was a pretty audacious acquisition from a US museum. In the US, they have no export controls at all.

Perhaps I should say, though, that my own old-fashioned taste would see me prefer to have the Le Brun than the Bellows. Anyway, the Met are looking after it very well.

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