'Now, for the Rubens estimated at £4-6m... do I hear £1m?'

February 23 2011

Image of 'Now, for the Rubens estimated at £4-6m... do I hear £1m?'

Picture: Sotheby's

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has flagged up some astonishing developments in the case of the Rubens/notRubens portrait that was stopped for export in January.

I discussed earlier the difficulties the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art must have had when deciding whether to stop the painting being exported, given the uncertainty over the attribution. Now, however, the story has taken a bizarre twist. It reveals the immense power of the single acknowledged expert, and the potential pitfalls of submitting a painting to the Reviewing Committee.

The basic facts are; [more below]

  • The portrait was previously unknown, and was offered at Sotheby's in December 2009 with an estimate of £4-6m. 
  • It failed to sell. Most scholars accepted it, but some did not, most notably Hans Vlieghe, who is as emminent as they come.
  • The vendors then decided they wanted to have the picture in the USA, where they also have interests. 
  • The picture was submitted to the Reviewing Committee at a valuation of £3.8m. 
  • An expert adviser, David Jaffe of the National Gallery, recommended the painting be stopped for export, as being of outstanding aesthetic significance.
  • The Committee could not agree on the valuation for any interested museum to buy it, and so two independent valuations were sought. The owner's valuer proposed £2.8m, the government's £1m.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. Since nobody could agree between the £2.8m valuation and the £1m valuation, an arbitrator was appointed to establish a final valuation. When a work of art is submitted to the Committee, the owner has to indicate that they will accept an offer to purchase from a museum, at whatever valuation the Committee decides on. If they withdraw, then the picture remains theirs, but cannot be exported for ten years. It can place owners in a very difficult position.

But the arbitrator appointed was - Hans Vlieghe!

I cannot quite believe this. Of course, Hans Vlieghe, believing that the picture was not by Rubens, had no choice but to decide on the lowest possible valuation, which was £1m (indeed, as merely 'Flemish School', it is worth less than half that). 

Was it really a fair decision to appoint Hans Vlieghe as arbitrator, either to him or the picture's owner? The owners may now feel compelled to sell the picture at one quarter of the low estimate that Sotheby's originally valued the painting at. 

If you had a million quid, and you believed the picture was 'right' (as we say in the trade) you could buy it under the 'Ridley Rules'. These allow for a private buyer to step in and purchase the painting at the set valuation, as long as it is displayed on loan for 100 days of the year in a museum. You would then hold it for a number of years, and hope that scholastic opinion accepts the painting as by Rubens. In which case, could you not then sell it at something close to Sotheby's original valuation? You have until March 17th to signal your interest...

Full details of the case here.


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