Last chance to buy £35m Rembrandt

October 16 2015

Image of Last chance to buy £35m Rembrandt

Picture: Telegraph

The UK's Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, has placed a temporary export bar on the above Rembrandt (Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, giving museums a last chance to buy the picture for £35m. It was sold privately to an overseas buyer earlier this year. Here's the press release:

One of Rembrandt’s greatest late portraits is at risk of being exported from the UK unless a buyer can be found to match the asking price of £35 million.

In order to provide a last chance to save it for the nation, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed a temporary export bar on a painting by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet.

The portrait is important, not only for the study of Rembrandt’s late career, but also of Dutch society. The subject of the portrait, Catrina Hooghsaet, was a wealthy Amsterdam Mennonite who, at the time of the painting, was married but separated from her husband, which reflects her strength of character and independence. She is accompanied not by her estranged husband, but by her pet parrot, who features in her will.

Rembrandt’s portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet has been in the UK for more than 250 years and is one of Rembrandt’s best-known paintings in the UK. It has been on loan and on public display at the National Museum of Wales, the National Trust’s Penrhyn Castle, North Wales (for which it was bought in 1860), and most recently at the Ashmolean Museum. The only comparable Rembrandt paintings in the UK, Jacob Trip and his wife Margareta de Geer (National Gallery) datable to about 1661, were executed in the Rembrandt’s ‘rough manner’ whereas the precision of Catrina Hooghsaet’s features recall a style that was present in his much earlier work.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said: “This Rembrandt painting has been enjoyed by the UK public for more than 250 years and provides a fascinating glimpse into history, helping us to better understand how society and art have evolved over the centuries. It’s important that paintings, especially one as famous as this, are available for our students to learn from. I hope that the temporary export bar I have put in place will result in a UK buyer coming forward to buy the Rembrandt painting to save it for the nation.”

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence for the Rembrandt painting following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. The RCEWA made their recommendation on the Rembrandt painting on the grounds of its close association with our history and national life, its outstanding aesthetic importance and its outstanding significance for the study of Rembrandt’s art and in particular his late works.

RCEWA Member Aidan Weston-Lewis said: “This is an exceptional portrait of a fascinating sitter, about whom there is still much to be discovered. Its departure abroad would be particularly unfortunate in view of its long presence in the UK, notably in Wales, which currently has no publicly-owned painting by Rembrandt.”

The decision on the export licence application for the Rembrandt painting will be deferred for a period ending on 15 February 2016 inclusive. This period may be extended until 15 October 2016 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the painting is made at the recommended price of £35,000,000 (plus VAT of £660,000).

Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price through the private treaty sale arrangements, where appropriate, may also be considered by Ed Vaizey. Such purchases frequently offer substantial financial benefit to a public institution wishing to acquire the item.

The last paragraph presumably refers to the fact that tax concessions may be offered by the government. In other words, HMG will agree to forego the tax payable on the painting by the owners, leaving a smaller sum to be raised by a museum. I don't know, but I suspect in this case that the painting was 'conditionally exempt' from death duties, meaning that death taxes of 40% were not levied on the painting in cash terms, in return for allowing the public to see the painting at certain times of the year. Thus, if part of the proceeds of the sale are to be taxed at 40%, and the government agrees to forgo that sum, then the effective asking price to a museum is £21m.

So the question is, after the French and Dutch governments each bought a Rembrandt for EUR80m apiece, can we buy one (a considerably nicer one) for less? Will the recent success of "Late Rembrandt" at the National Gallery give momentum to any public campaign? We have until October next year to find out. Here's hoping...

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