The power of telly? Marketing the Old Masters

November 4 2015

Image of The power of telly? Marketing the Old Masters

Picture: BBC

A couple of weeks ago, I appeared in a BBC Artsnight programme to discuss an upcoming Old Master auction, with an emphasis on how affordable some of the great names of art history could be. A picture I picked out from Christie's mid-season Old Master sale was the above unfinished head by Sir Thomas Lawrence, my favourite British artist. The estimate was £15k-£20k, and it had previously bought-in at a Christie's sale when estimated at £30k-£50k. This time around it sold for £40,000.

All of which made me think about the way to market these Old Master auctions - are the auction houses really doing enough? The short answer is no.

For example, Sotheby's mid-season sale (that is, with pictures from the hundreds of pounds up to the low tens of thousands) was held on a Tuesday, starting at 2pm. The view, however, was only open on the previous Friday till 4.30pm, Sunday from 12 till 5pm, and Monday till 4.30pm. That left precious little time for anyone to see what was on offer - for most working people it was just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, when they probably had other things to do. Nor was the cataloguing at Sotheby's particularly informative; for the most part title, artist, dimensions and estimate. Sure, the rooms looked nice when you got there, with good lighting and a nice atmosphere, and the website has good quality images. But is that enough to persuade potential new collectors to come and bid? 

Not really. Let's say you went to the view on Sunday, and liked a picture. That gave you a day to think about bidding, which you might not have done before. Perhaps you might fancy an online bid - but then you find out the cut off time to register is 24 hours before the sale, so unless you're committed to bid by 2pm on Monday, you can't take part. If you're busy, you're unlikely to have the time to go and bid in person. Which leaves a phone bid of course, but then that too takes time to set up, especially if you don't have an account at Sotheby's already. Some advice on delivery and hanging your new purchase? A photo of the picture in its frame? Good luck.

In other words, it seems to me that the auction houses sometimes don't do enough to tempt new collectors into the market. Christie's are a more pro-active in London, for their saleroom at South Kensington is more retail-friendly. It's open on Saturdays, has late night viewings, and publishes magazines directed towards new collectors and the 'middle market'. Sotheby's has no secondary saleroom. Bonhams does, in Knightsbridge, but they're a long way away from Christie's in their presentation (and viewing times).

So that's why I suggested the BBC film at Christie's, because there at least anyone in the audience who was interested in the Lawrence, or some of the other pictures we featured, had a better chance of being able to follow it up.

Of course, these questions are all part of the wider issue of whether the auction market is best placed to help drive interest in Old Masters. Fewer dealers around (because they find it hard to compete with the auction houses) means fewer ambassadors out there to make the pitch for Old Masters all year round, at fairs, with catalogues, and galleries. So instead the Old Master market is becoming concentrated into three or four sales a year. And for the 'middle market' sales, like the ones last week, that means dumping about 600 or more pictures onto the market in a quiet week in October, with little effort made to get out and advertise them. It's no wonder some of the lots (like this one)* could hardly be given away. Few other markets would function like that.

So here we are, then, with a business model primarly designed centuries ago to cater for a wholesale market now trying to be a retail market - but failing. Certainly, the auctioneers might say they only really care about the high end stuff. But in fact auction margins are highest for items up to about £500,000. And if the auctioneers don't take care to nurture the new Old Master buyer who wants to start with a £2k picture, before graduating up to a £200k one, or even higher (and in my experience that's how most of them start), then they're in danger of turning away future clients. 

Many people who saw the Artsnight programme were genuinely amazed that a picture by a big name like Lawrence could be so (relatively) 'cheap' - at least at the initial estimate. As regular readers will know, I am optimistic about the depth of interest out there for Old Masters. But those of us in the trade, collectively, need to think again about how we reach that market in today's time-starved, short-attention-span, digital world. As far as auction houses go, there would seem to be a few simple steps to take: have longer viewing times which are more suited to people's lifestyles; make it easier for people to register and bid; write a few lines in the catalogue entry about the artist and period of the picture you're selling, even if it is a generic cut and paste paragraph about the life of an artist; and at viewings, don't be afraid to go up to obviously new clients, ask them what they're looking for, and generally be helpful. It is possible to convert people to the virtues of Old Masters - we just have to try.

Update - a reader writes:

I couldn’t disagree more with you about the lighting at [Sotheby's] Bond Street for their mid season sale.

It was like viewing in a nightclub. I know they are trying to cut costs but this was ridiculous.

Otherwise spot on. 

* I was watching the sale online, but couldn't bid because I'd not registered in time. I'd certainly have bid on some these bargains, where there was no reserve, if I'd been able to.

Undistinguished provenance

November 4 2015

Image of Undistinguished provenance

Picture: Sotheby's

There's a still life coming up for sale at Sotheby's in London, as part of the 'Bernheimer Evening Sale', which was once in the collection of (as they say in the war films) 'the Führer himself'. It's a rather indistiguished picture, and the attribution has been as varied as the provenance. But then Hitler was a vegetarian, so perhaps baskets of fruit appealed to him. Details here.

"He's, er, relieving himself Ma'am".

November 4 2015

Image of "He's, er, relieving himself Ma'am".

Picture: Royal Collection Trust

Conservators at the Royal Collection have uncovered a man doing a 'number 2' as we say here, up against a wall in a painting by Isaack van Ostade. The detail had been painted out by a restorer in 1903 when the work was put on display at Buckingham Palace. Below is the offending detail (to be found lower right in the painting) and below that the picture before cleaning.

Here's the Royal Collection press release:

From street vendors peddling food to singers performing to a crowd, a 17th-century Dutch painting in the Royal Collection captures all the rustic charm of a village fair. But work undertaken by Royal Collection Trust conservators ahead of a new exhibition opening at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace next month has revealed that all was not quite as it seemed. Painstaking cleaning of the painting has uncovered a squatting figure relieving himself in the foreground, hidden for more than 100 years under overpainted shrubbery.

Painted in 1643, A Village Fair with a Church Behind by Isack van Ostade is one of 27 works going on display in the exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. It was acquired in 1810 by George IV, when Prince of Wales, and hung in the Middle Room at Carlton House, the Prince's London residence on Pall Mall. Inventories of Carlton House in the Royal Archives show that the coarse, comic depictions of peasant life in A Village Fair with a Church Behind would have been entirely to the future king's taste.

It is believed that the offending figure was painted over in 1903, when the work, which by then hung in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, was sent for treatment by an art restorer. The modified painting, perhaps now more in tune with Edwardian sensibilities, was returned to the Picture Gallery, where it hung for several more years. A similar alteration had been made to A Village Revel by Jan Steen, 1673, also acquired by George IV and in the Royal Collection. The painting shows a group of country people drinking and brawling outside an inn, symbolising human folly. Conservation revealed that the tavern sign was originally painted with an image of a man with his buttocks exposed, which at some point had been overpainted with a bull's head.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures and curator of the exhibition said:

'Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word 'nature', the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a 'low style'; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly'.

The new exhibition opens in London at the Queen's Gallery on 13th November.


November 3 2015


I was in London yesterday, and just managed to escape the fog. I've a few things to catch up on, and will be back to blogging duties later today.

Charles Dance as Van Gogh

October 31 2015

Video: Sotheby's

'Verso; a newly discovered Cezanne drawing'

October 29 2015

Image of 'Verso; a newly discovered Cezanne drawing'

Picture: Christie's

It's two Cezannes for the price of one at Christie's soon, after specialists found a previously unknown drawing on the back of another. More here.

Fragonard vandalised in France

October 28 2015

Image of Fragonard vandalised in France

Picture: Le Parisien

Some eejit has vandalised a number of paintings by Fragonard and others at the Musée Fragonard in Grasse, France. Reports Artnet News:

a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a respected Rococo master, reproductions of his work, and additional artworks by François Gérard and François-André Vincent have all been defaced using felt tip and ballpoint pen.

Circular scribbles, long lines of felt pen, and ill-executed moustaches can clearly be seen on the canvases. Moreover, one painting now has a large hole right at its center.

The perpetrator struck on more than one occasion, starting on September 25. On October 19, further damage was noticed. Despite the repeated incidents, nothing was mentioned publicly, until the Mayor of Grasse confirmed the puzzling acts on October 25 via a public statement.

White glove shot (ctd.)

October 28 2015

Image of White glove shot (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

A reader sends me the above example, freshly tweeted by Sotheby's. This is a vintage white glove shot, and an entirely justified use of the genre since Bacon's subject might himself be playing the part of art handler. If only he was wearing a white glove. 

Meanwhile, in response to an earlier white glove story, an art handling reader writes in some indignation:

As an art handler from a reputable organisation I can tell you that we do indeed use the gloves pictured by the woman in the press photo and they aren't just for vets as your blogger comments. Perhaps if they looked into new research they would find out that these gloves are the way forward as they provide better grip and don't leave marks on the objects like so many others. This was actually tried and tested by a group of dedicated art handlers who knew what they were talking about.

Furthermore I am a female art handler and the only one in my division which quite frankly makes me glad to see a women shown holding a work rather than a bloke as they would so prefer. Yes, believe it or not women move art too these days. Blokes and bloggers alike need to get over it.

As for the shot angles and the position well that is artistic license by the press and anyone with any sense realises that intent when looking at any photo distribution by a gallery or museum so commenting on it is just pointless.

Yes yes, I know commenting on the white glove phenomenon is pointless, but I just can't help myself. AHN revels in being pointless. I also I can't help thinking that the reader above would prefer it if the women most often photographed in these shots were (a) in fact real art handlers, and not from the press office, and (b) actually doing some art handling, not just pretending too for the photgrapher's benefit.  

New Michelangelo discovery! (ctd.)

October 28 2015

Image of New Michelangelo discovery! (ctd.)

Picture: PR Newswire

Further to the rather breathless - and somewhat optimistic - announcement by Swiss scientific analysts that they had discovered a pair of wooden putti by Michelangelo, blogging art historian Jamie Edwards has written a much more convincing take-down of their methodology. And it doesn't bode well for those number-crunching Swiss. For example:

The main thrust of the evidence concerns the date and likely place of origin of the sculptures; in their own words: “The study analyzes the plausibility of the object’s time of origin using technical and scientific methods.” What they’ve discovered is that the present layer of polychromy and bonding substances are original. Not only that, the technique and materials point to Italy as the place of manufacture and “the time of origin as circa 1494”. This approximate, but surprisingly precise (which is say, suspiciously engineered), date was then “confirmed” by scientific dating of the wood using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, which “showed that the assumed age (1494) was in the calibrated time frame (dendrocorrected), with a 100% probability.” Having thus “established” that the putti were made in Italy in 1494, they embarked upon stylistic analysis, comparing the sculptures to authentic works by Michelangelo. This is all to say that somebody involved had from the get-go a hunch, however wishful, that these might be by Michelangelo and so having decided on the date and place of production by means of science, let’s actually think about this in terms of art and try and prove this basic proposition.

More here.

How to get loans for an exhibition

October 28 2015

Image of How to get loans for an exhibition

Picture: NYT

In the New York Times, Ronni Baer of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, explains how she has secured so many masterpieces for her exhibition “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer”:

“You can’t just have a gimmick, ‘paintings with animals,’ and expect to get their star works,” said Ronni Baer, senior curator of European paintings at the museum. Punctilious lenders, she added, “need to know you’re doing something serious to advance scholarship and not just another masterpiece show.” [...]

Unlike shows that focus on a single artist, or a genre like still lifes, the exhibition here showcases many hands, styles and subjects. As museumgoers travel from regal apartments to back-alley hovels, examining faces, places and objects rendered in keen detail, they experience the 17th-century equivalent of a social documentary.

“It is an excellent concept, yet one that has not been tried before,” said Norbert Middelkoop, paintings curator at the Amsterdam Museum, which provided two works ordinarily used to teach history and hierarchy to schoolchildren. “I think this will really strike a chord with American society.”

Ms. Baer, who has a doctorate in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, persuaded the hard-to-crack Rijksmuseum, the premier art institution in the Netherlands, to contribute works by greats like Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen and by others that had never been shown in America. She has brought two of Vermeer’s 36 known works here — a great “get” for a city that has been bereft of its lone Vermeer, “The Concert,” since it was stolen in 1990 from the nearby Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. [...]

To obtain an illuminating — and laudatory — canvas from the Amsterdam Museum, by an unknown artist, showing the rich distributing bread, peat and other alms to what they called the “deserving poor,” Ms. Baer arranged for her museum to share the cost of restoring a painting that depicts a town hall.

Impressive stuff. But it is a little disappointing that the process of securing laons has become so tortuous, with institutions needing to effectively be bribed with this or that quid pro quo.

Sleeper alert

October 28 2015

Image of Sleeper alert

Picture: Bonhams

A reader writes:

This still life by Hendrik van der Borcht did just quite well at Bonhams. Up till now only three other works were known by this master. He and his son advised the Lord of Arundel in numismatic matters.

£194,500 against an estimate of £1,000-£1,500. Amazing. Of course, I walked straight past it.

Still not Shakespeare (ctd.)

October 27 2015

Image of Still not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Spotted this rogue in my Sunday Times.

Purple gloves!

October 27 2015

Video: Sotheby's

And black ones, and just plain hands, but no white ones - and no Press Officers pretending to hold anything. The above film shows Gentileschi's Danaeë arriving at Sotheby's New York. 

Ai Wei Wei vs Lego

October 27 2015

Image of Ai Wei Wei vs Lego

Picture: via

Ai Wei Wei, of whom AHN is a fan, has launched an appeal to crowd source Lego bricks, after the Danish company refused to supply him themselves. More here.

Rubbish art

October 27 2015

Image of Rubbish art

Picture: Telegraph

From Italy, another one of those 'cleaner clears up art because they thought it was rubbish' stories:

An avant-garde art exhibition at a museum in Italy ended up being thrown in the bin after overzealous cleaners decided that it must be rubbish.

The installation, entitled “Where shall we go dancing tonight?”, was supposed to represent the hedonism and political corruption of the 1980s.

Created by Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari, artists from Milan, it consisted of cigarette butts, empty bottles, paper streamers, confetti and discarded shoes and clothing.

When cleaning staff turned up for work at the Museion museum in Bolzano in Italy’s German-speaking Sud Tyrol province, they assumed that the mess was left over from a party the night before.

They promptly started clearing up, throwing the objects into bin bags. They conscientiously divided the items into different recycling sacks for glass, plastic and paper.

I think the idea of recycling contemporary art could catch on.

Update - a reader writes:

I want an invitation to the party they hold to reconstruct the assemblage.   Lots of Champagne bottles there.

Gombrich remembered

October 26 2015

Image of Gombrich remembered

Picture: Artlyst

I was delighted to see that a 'Blue Plaque' has been unveiled at the former home of E.H. Gombrich, whose clarity of thought and writing in 'The Story of Art' has inspired millions since it was first published in 1950.

Mid-season Old Master sales

October 26 2015

Image of Mid-season Old Master sales

Picture: BG

The mid-season Old Master sales are on this week, and there are bargain pictures galore to be snapped up. A contemporary and unique portrait of Henry VIII, at £10k-£15k, just months after a Holbein studio portrait made nearly £1m? Click right here. Or a Gaspard Poussin landscape at £5k-£7k? A large and fine still life by Gerard van Berleboch at £5k-£7k, signed and dated 1650?

Sotheby's is tomorrow, Bonhams on Wednesday, and Christie's on Thursday. 

I viewed the sales yesterday, and was delighted to meet a new collector who had seen Will Gompertz's programme on the art market, and how cheap Old Masters are. I alos thought Sotheby's window display, with a doll's house full of miniature lots from the sale was charming. Top marks to whoever came up with that idea.

Van Dyck preview at the Frick

October 26 2015

Image of Van Dyck preview at the Frick

Picture: Frick

Excitement is building here at AHN towers ahead of the new Van Dyck portrait exhibition at the Frick, which opens March 2nd 2016. To give us an idea of what to expect, the Frick has brought some of its Van Dyck portraits out of storage, and hung them together:

A new installation in the Frick’s East Gallery is intended to evoke a British country house in its juxtaposition of painting, sculpture, and furniture. Among the highlights of the installation are three portraits of English sitters by Anthony van Dyck that have been in storage for several years*: Sir John Suckling; Lady Anne Carey, Later Viscountess Claneboye and Countess of Clanbrassil; andLord and Lady Strange, Later Earl and Countess of Derby, with Their Daughter. The return of these paintings to the galleries offers visitors a preview of next year’s special exhibition Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture (March 2 through June 5, 2016), which will place six of the Frick’s eight portraits by the artist in the context of more than ninety paintings, prints, and drawings from public and private collections around the world. The presentation has provided the occasion for renewed research into the Frick’s holdings by the artist, whose works were particularly sought after by Gilded Age collectors, including Henry Clay Frick.

More here.

* Great works by Van Dycks in storage, for 'several years'? Don't get me started... 

Newly discovered portrait of Lady Nelson

October 26 2015

Image of Newly discovered portrait of Lady Nelson

Picture: Telegraph

A newly discovered portrait of Lady Nelson has been found on eBay. It is significant not just because it's her, but because it shows her wearing a cameo portrait of Nelson - long after the man himself had forsaken her for the more tender charms of Emma Hamilton. In the photo below, the portrait is being held by Martyn Downer, the Nelson historian who found discovered it. More images and details here.

I know Martyn well, and being a sensible chap he is not wearing white gloves. We edge towards victory, one photo shoot at a time.


£35m Rembrandt to stay in the UK

October 24 2015

Image of £35m Rembrandt to stay in the UK

Picture: via Grumpy Art Historian

Last week we had the news that an export licence application for the above portrait by Rembrandt, which was sold to an overseas buyer for £35m, was temporarily halted by the UK's arts minister, Ed Vaizey. Most people, I suspect, thought that the picture was too expensive for any UK institution to attempt to 'save' for the nation. But last night the Art Fund put out this statement:

‘The Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art, had intended to announce on Monday 26 October a campaign to save Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (1607 – 1685), 1657, from export.

Previously at Penrhyn Castle, it had been provisionally sold by the trustees of the Penrhyn settled estates in North Wales to an overseas buyer for £35million.  However, the Secretary of State announced on 16 October that an export licence would be withheld (initially until 15 February 2016) to enable a UK buyer to try to raise the necessary funds to keep the work in this country.

At 3.30pm today the Art Fund received a call from Sotheby’s to say that they would be withdrawing their application for an export licence on behalf of their overseas buyer, and that the work would instead remain in this country for the time being.

The Art Fund believes that the future of the painting remains perilously unsafe. It has been in Wales for 150 years and in Britain for nearly 300 years, and is of supreme national importance. By mounting a public appeal at this critical point the Art Fund had aimed to ensure that this masterpiece could be acquired by a UK public collection, and at a favourable price:  net of tax the price had been agreed at c.£22.5 million.  Indeed significant funds from charitable sources had already been raised since the 16 October announcement.

The Art Fund is deeply concerned by this turn of events, and will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to ensure that the public interest is better served, in this and in other matters concerning the protection of our national cultural heritage.’

The first thing to say is that we must applaud the Art Fund, and whichever institutions it was planning to work with, for attempting to buy the picture. It would I think have been a record price for an acquisition in this manner. As I speculated last week, the deal would have involved a significant amount of tax foregone by the Treasury, bringing the price down to £22.5m. So we must also applaud the government for being prepared to make an effective contribution of £12.5m - a huge amount these days.

But I must say I am puzzled by the Art Fund's last paragraph in their statement, and the idea that the future of the painting is 'perilously unsafe'. What in fact has happened?

I'm told that the sale of the painting will still go ahead. The buyer has withdrawn the export licence, presumably because he or she thought the Art Fund's campaign had a chance of success, and they wanted to be sure of owning the painting. In return, they were happy for their picture to remain in the UK. I'm also told that the new owner will put the picture on public display. And as I understand the UK's export licence rules, the new owner cannot re-apply for an export licence for ten years. So the picture will remain in UK, and on show, for at least a decade. Finally, the Treasury will be £12.5m better off, as the new buyer will pay the full price, and the vendors will have to settle the tax due. It is likely that to help offset this tax amount, further pictures from the Penrhyn Castle collection will be offered to the nation 'in lieu', thus ensuring they stay on public display and in situ.

So does all this mean that the 'public interest' is not being served, as the Art Fund suggests? And is the future of the Rembrandt 'perilously unsafe'? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the system for protecting our cultural treasures is working well here, balanced as it is by the UK's commendable fairness toward the owners of art. In this situation, a seller has been able to achieve the highest price for their work of art on the international market (in many countries this is not possible), but the picture will remain in the UK. The Treasury is better off. The Art Fund has more money to spend saving other works, and it is likely that at least one lucky public institution will get to hang a Rembrandt on their walls for free. And if we as a nation really want to save this picture, then we have a much longer time-frame in which to raise the money to buy it, with a much greater chance of success. Raising £35m (or £22.5m with the tax advantage) in 12 months was always going to be a difficult challenge - and if we had failed then the picture would have been gone forever.

In other words, I can't immediately see why the Art Fund put out such a doom and gloom statement. Am I missing something?

Update - the Grumpy Art Historian is not impressed:

One possibility, not to be dismissed lightly, is that the Art Fund is run by idiots. They seem more interested in marketing than in art, demanding that museums include prominent lurid acknowledgement of their support and following fashion in headlong pursuit of trendy contemporary art. Describing the Rembrandt as 'perilously unsafe' is absurd hyperbole that reveals their real focus: keeping stuff in the UK rather than developing our public art collections. 

The other possibility is that they have just given up on the idea of developing collections and buying great works of art in favour of simply keeping in  the UK whatever is already in the UK. The trope of 'saving our art' plays to the bias of loss-aversion, which as specialists in advertising rather than art they will understand well. But it's a sign of the stultifying monoculture of arts discussion here that it goes unchallenged. No one questions the absurdly distorted funding model, or makes the case for going out to buy art that is great rather than art that is here.

Another reader writes:

It is good news that the Rembrandt stays in the UK for now but it must be frustrating for the museum which was looking to acquire and calls for further reform to the UK export licensing system are perhaps understandable.  Each applicant for an export licence must indicate their willingness to sell the work in question to a UK museum if a matching bid can be raised.  If the applicant confirms that they will sell then relevant museums - typically with Art Fund assistance - embark on (often heroic) fund raising efforts, increasingly difficult in recent times. As the export process imposes no legal obligation on the applicant, an overseas owner can theoretically withdraw their application for an export licence right up to the last moment thus leaving the museum with an unfortunate ‘cost’ both in terms of time spent and goodwill potentially foregone with donors etc.  I suspect this partly explains the Art Fund’s concern with the Rembrandt.  It does not seem unreasonable that museums should be allowed to work through these cases with the benefit of certainty given the size of the sums involved.

Other similar cases in recent years include William Hoare’s Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Reynolds' Portrait of Omai.  Hoare’s portrait is on display at the National Gallery (now owned by the Qatar) but I am unsure as to the whereabouts of the Omai portrait (owned by John Magnier), having been ferried backwards and forward between Dublin and London over the past 10 years.

Another reader writes:

It is good news that the Rembrandt stays in the UK for now but it must be frustrating for the museum which was looking to acquire and calls for further reform to the UK export licensing system are perhaps understandable.  Each applicant for an export licence must indicate their willingness to sell the work in question to a UK museum if a matching bid can be raised.  If the applicant confirms that they will sell then relevant museums - typically with Art Fund assistance - embark on (often heroic) fund raising efforts, increasingly difficult in recent times. As the export process imposes no legal obligation on the applicant, an overseas owner can theoretically withdraw their application for an export licence right up to the last moment thus leaving the museum with an unfortunate ‘cost’ both in terms of time spent and goodwill potentially foregone with donors etc.  I suspect this partly explains the Art Fund’s concern with the Rembrandt.  It does not seem unreasonable that museums should be allowed to work through these cases with the benefit of certainty given the size of the sums involved.

Other similar cases in recent years include William Hoare’s Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Reynolds' Portrait of Omai. Hoare’s portrait is on display at the National Gallery (now owned by the Qatar) but I am unsure as to the whereabouts of the Omai portrait (owned by John Magnier) [...]

It's true that there is no legal obligation for the buyer to accept a matching offer. In the export licence meetings the buyer, or their representative, is asked 'would you accept a matching offer if the money is raised'. If you say 'no' then the licence is refused immediately. If you say yes, and then change your mind then you cannot re-apply for the licence for ten years. I can see the argument for making accepting a matching offer more binding. But in practice, making a buyer wait a minimum of ten years to export a picture, with no guarantee of success, might be seen as penalty enough. It is indeed a shame for those insititutions who try to raise the money to see their efforts dashed at the last moment. Happily, in the present Rembrandt case the process was paused early on. 

I can certainly understand the Art Fund's concern. They know what a tiny fraction of objects judged to meet the Waverly Criteria are actually saved, given the non-existent public funding for acquisitions and failure of the government's attempt to induce Britain's elite to embrace art philanthropy. If owners of the few items where a campaign proves possible just sit back and wait for a moment of greater weakness, history suggests they will not be disappointed. Our system gives more respect to buyers rights than many, and those rights would not be unduly eroded if the law was changed so that those seeking an export permit had to give a binding undertaking to accept a matching offer.

I'm not sure history does suggest that waiting for a moment of 'greater weakness' helps the buyers of art works like this - after all, when it comes to raising money for acquisitions we're at a pretty weak moment right now. I'm still not convinced the £35m (or effectively £22.5m after the Treasury's contribution) would have been raised in 12 months, in which case the picture would have been lost forever. Despite what the Art Fund avers, the picture seems less 'perilously unsafe' now than it did last week.

Update II - another reader makes this important point;

With regard to the tax issue though, I wonder if the Art Fund’s concern at the speedy withdrawal of the Export License application is because the tax deduction, bringing the price down to 22.5million GBP, is only applicable if the painting is sold by the original owner?  If the Rembrandt is sold to a new owner for 35millionGBP, the Treasury will get the tax and should the new owner apply for an Export License in ten year’s time the price will not only be ( much ) higher but there will be no tax relief because the painting will not have been “conditionally exempted” for decades. At the best, there might be a small doucer for a Private Treaty sale—which rarely seem to happen at all these days.

So, from the Art Fund's point of view (but not 'the nation' as a whole), the picture will only get more expensive. Though this assumes prices will rise over the next ten years, and that someone else will be willing to pay more than £35m should the new owner ever wish to sell. Neither can be taken for granted of course.

Update III - the Museums Association has put out a report on the story on its website, which is full of basic factual errors (for example, reporting that the picture will soon be sold at Sotheby's by auction). It's as if they've just made bits of the story up.

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