Art Fund to stop saving works from export

January 29 2016

Image of Art Fund to stop saving works from export

Picture: Sotheby's/ArtFund

Here's a curious story: Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports that the Art Fund will stop fundraising for works of art under threat of export, unless changes are made to the UK's export licensing system. Says TAN:

Stephen Deuchar, its director, tells The Art Newspaper: “If no changes to the present system are made, we do not see how we can, in all conscience, launch fundraising campaigns to save export-stopped works.” He adds: “People will only donate to a campaign if they know a work can actually be purchased at the end of it.”

Deuchar is deeply disturbed by what he regards as abuses of the UK export system. This follows the debacle that ensued when the foreign buyer of a £35m work by Rembrandt, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (1657), withdrew an export licence application when the Art Fund decided to mount a public campaign to buy the picture for Wales. “We believe the UK export system should serve our public collections more effectively by requiring licence applicants to give a binding commitment that they will not thwart museums that want to match the price,” Deuchar says.

Deuchar, a former director of Tate Britain, is backed up by Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota:

Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, also wants reforms to ensure that buyers confirm in advance that they will accept matching offers from UK public collections. “Without such a provision, future fundraising campaigns will be doomed to failure, as donors will not be inclined to give when their generosity may turn out to be an empty gesture,” he says.

So, what's going on here? Clearly, the recent Rembrandt business has left a bad taste at the Art Fund (for a recap on that see here). Consequently, the Fund now seems specifically to be wanting to change the UK's export licensing rules to compel an owner or buyer to accept a matching offer from a UK museum. At the moment, when an export licence application is made (either by a new owner, or on behalf of a prospective new owner) the export committee asks whether a museum's matching offer will be accepted. If the buyer says 'no', then the export licence is automatically rejected, and you can't re-apply for ten years: the picture stays in the UK. If you say 'yes', and then change your mind later, the export licence is still automatically rejected: the picture stays in the UK. In other words, the picture is not 'lost' - it just isn't necessarily transferred into public ownership. Everyone has the chance to try again ten years later.

And that, therefore, tells us that the primary purpose of the UK's export licensing system is to prevent works deemed of national importance from leaving the country - not transferring them from private ownership to public ownership. It is after all possible to 'save' a picture for the nation without a museum buying it. Consequently, the UK government's response to the Art Fund's threat is this: “The system is designed to strike a balance between the public interest and the rights of individuals to enjoy their property.” Which seems to me to be eminently sensible.

Nevertheless, there is a chance that a fundraising campaign can go ahead, and at the last minute, after all the money has been raised, and the collection boxes are full, the plug can be pulled. This is, actually, a rarity. In the case of the Rembrandt, no campaign was actually launched. Back in 2003, the Tate did raise the money to buy Reynolds' full-length portrait of Omai - only for the owner, John Magnier, to change his mind. The picture is still in the UK, but it's not on public display. One might think, from the words of Serota, that any campaigns to 'save' works after the Omai case were 'doomed to failure' - but of course they were not, as the Art Fund's magnificent efforts over the last ten years has demonstrated.

That said, I can certainly see the case for making some changes to address the issue the Art Fund is raising (just as I agree there need to be some changes made on the related issue of tax exempt works being sold). It would indeed be frustrating for a future campaign to raise all the money required, only to then see the licence withdrawn. While the great majority of funds raised in this manner are pledges that aren't cashed until the picture is actually acquired, it's still impossible to give back those smaller donations put in the collection boxes.

So, what to do? I'm instinctively reluctant to do anything that compels someone to sell their work of art to a museum. Call me old fashioned, but I believe in the right to private property. And there are other ways a picture can be 'saved' - for example, the so-called Ridley Rules allow a private buyer to provide a matching offer to save a work of art, as long as they put it on public display for much of the year. But could changes be made that disincentivise owners from changing their minds? Certainly. How about raising the period of time before you can reapply for an export licence, from ten years to, say, fifteen, or even longer. That would make people think twice about withdrawing an offer at the last minute.

There is of course the wider question of whether the Art Fund should be resorting to cultural blackmail like this? Personally, I'm surprised to see the Art Fund getting so political. I'm not entirely sure it does the Fund any favours in the long term, though it might generate a few headlines. Presenting an ultimatum like this to the government is a risk too, for passing the necessary legislation, even if the government agreed to make the changes, can take a long time. The right to enjoy your private property is actually a European human right, so for fear of a challenge, I can't see any UK government deciding to change the rules quickly. And in the meantime what happens to the works currently threatened with export (for a list, see here)? And is making such a threat really the best way to get the government to respond? I'm not sure. Finally, if indeed we do want to 'save' more works from export abroad, then we really need to look at the bigger issue here, and that's the need for more money. 

Update - a reader writes:

On the Art Fund’s ultimatum, if you look at this from a buyer’s perspective, the question is why anyone would go to the financial and emotional trouble to bid in a highly competitive auction for a masterpiece, when there is the constant risk that the Art Fund can reclaim it. If some of the pieces that are currently blocked from export, such as the anglo-saxon bronze brooch sold for about GBP9,000 (!) were of such national importance, shouldn’t have the government through a foundation or a national museum tried to buy it when it came up for sale? The same may hold true for Hans Krebs’ Nobel Price medal, which was sold at the lower end of the estimate range, hence any museum, university or whoever exemplifies the national interest in this case, could have simply bought it out of the sale.

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