Who'll buy £30m Pontormo portrait?

January 7 2016

Image of Who'll buy £30m Pontormo portrait?

Picture: Arts Council

And, more importantly, should the price actually be £30m?

To recap, the above exquisite portrait by Pontormo was discovered in 2008 in a UK private collection by the legendary Old Master scholar Francis Russell, of Christie's in London. It was soon loaned to the National Gallery in London - but recently the picture was sold from under the noses of the National's former director, Sir Nicholas Penny. The seller broke, we are told by Francis Russell in The Guardian, the terms of the loan agreement with the National, which understandably wanted to protect itself from the suggestion that a painting could be sold from their walls. The NG had asked for an assurance that the picture would not be sold whilst on display.

Furthermore, the owner did not give the UK government, through the Arts Council, the traditional three month 'notice of intention to sell', which the owners of tax exempt works of art (ie, works which have a tax liability on them - usually inheritance tax of 40% - but for which the tax has not yet been collected) are expected to do. This means that UK institutions have a three month heads up that a work of national importance is potentially available for sale, and that any museum wanting to buy it can seek an effective discount of the tax due. 

The net effect of the owner breaking both 'conditions' is that a UK institution must now raise the full amount of £30.6m to buy the picture, not (assuming the tax was due at 40%) a much reduced figure, with the UK Treasury forgoing the tax due. The picture has already been sold, and the new owner (for whom the tax question does not arise) has applied for an export licence. The seller will pay their tax to the Treasury directly. 

So, the question is, should sellers in cases like this be obliged to submit their works of art to the customary process wherby the Treasury effectively contributes, through tax foregone, to a museum's fundraising process? Those, like the Grumpy Art Historian, who think that we shouldn't be so focused on 'saving' art that has happened to be in the country for a century or two, would say not, and that the Treasury should keep its tax, and instead contribute the funds to a genuine acquisition fund, where museums are free to chose what to buy on a work's merits, not its geographical history. The chances of this happening are of course zilch.

Personally, I always thought that the 'notice of intention to sell' was obligatory. But I am told it is not; it's merely a 'recommendation' in the small print of a Treasury document. Since the whole point of conditionally exempting art works of national importance is to help ensure that they should eventually go into public ownership, or at least have a high chance of doing so, and at the very least going on public display, then it seems to me entirely logical that any intention to sell such works must be properly notified - by law if required. I'm told, however, that such a step would require primary legislation, and so it's not the work of a moment. I hope that something can be done, for there does seem to be a trend for vendors of conditionally exempt art works to make life as hard as possible for UK institutions to step in and acquire works. 

Of course, there is a wider question in this case; if the picture was 'lost' for 200 years before Francis Russell found it, would we really miss it if it went overseas? Let me know what you think.

Update - a reader writes:

As with the recent Rembrandt portrait, for which the export licence request was withdrawn to avoid an Art Fund campaign, the situation on the Pontormo portrait suggests that it is increasingly unsafe to rely on the goodwill of buyers or sellers to give British institutions a fighting chance to save at least some works from export. Given their huge financial disadvantage relative to overseas galleries which (in some cases) have almost unlimited purchase budgets our rules need to ensure that the mechanisms in place to give them a chance to step in the few cases where they thinks funds can be raised are not easy sidestepped by parties to the export. At the moment it seems they are, and it will quickly become the norm for buyers to make any purchase dependent on sellers cooperating to frustrate any effort to save a work that is made. The rules clearly need changing to give UK institution rights much closer to the pre-emption rights existing in France.

I have to say it is not clear whether the Grumpy Art Historian is being deeply naïve or simply disingenuous. We all know that the UK Treasury isn't going to give UK museums and galleries more money to buy what they like. Undermining the regime for saving works will simply mean that our institutions make no significant purchases of any sort - a result which would regarded with delight by the Treasury.

Another reader adds:

A Pontormo portrait such as this is hugely important and rare irrespective of any artistic discussion. It would be very desirable to have it remain in the National Gallery. Then who should or could pay for it. It isn't a part of Britain’s national heritage and it wasn't “lost” given that the Treasury knew of it from an estate filing. The Treasury has needs beyond funding this picture and AHN has mentioned some other pictures historically more important to the national heritage than this one that are likely to be offered by estates or others in the foreseeable future.

National heritage and patrimony should be kept in Britain if possible but that doesn't extend to barring export of every picture deemed artistically important. A number of people might want eventually to apply such export barriers to Hirst or Koons.       

The Grumpy Art Historian makes good sense even when that view it results a picture going abroad simply because no one in Britain will pay the price to keep it in the country Monarchs, Emperor's, and Popes devoted vast amounts of their realms resources to art and architecture but elected governments don't have that freedom of action without the consent of the governed.

Update II - another reader writes:

Regarding the Pontormo portrait, I wonder why the name of the seller who reneged on his (or her) agreement with the National Gallery has not been made public.I understand why there might be a case for maintaining the anonymity of the purchasers of export-stopped works of art - to keep them sweet when a campaign to purchase by a British museum or collector is mounted (though, of course, that isn't relevant if the campaign fails and the work leaves the country). There is no case to retain the anonymity of the seller of the Pontormo portrait.

I am amazed that in Britain the story has only been picked up by you and The Guardian. It's all rather strange - a grave case of lack of public spiritedness involving a wonderful and extremely expensive painting which apparently is of no interest to, say, The Art Newspaper or The Times or The Telegraph?

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