Thanks - but shame about the strings

February 20 2013

Image of Thanks - but shame about the strings

Picture: Guardian/Martin Godwin

The late Sir Denis Mahon's bequest of some 57 mainly Italian 17th Century pictures, the details of which were finalised yesterday, was an extraordinarily generous act. They have been given to six major UK galleries. You can see a slideshow of all the pictures, and where they've gone to, on the ArtFund's website.

However, the gift has come with strings attached. From The Guardian:

If any attempt is made by the host museum to charge for admission; or any item from their collection is put up for sale, the Art Fund, the charity that is donating them, can take them back.

Now, maintaining free admission and preventing deaccessioning are two laudable aims. But it seems to me that Sir Denis's conditions place unusually punitive restraints on a museum's freedom to act. Whatever one thinks of free entry or deaccessioning, it is surely in the best interests of a museum for it and it alone to decide how it wants to govern itself. If we want, as a society, to guarantee free entry and ban deaccessioning, then we should do it through legislation, not the wishes of one donor in return for some mostly interesting pictures. The fact that we have not is indicative of the long accepted principle that these decisions are best left to individual boards of trustees. I would understand if Sir Denis had said that paintings in his bequest must never be sold. But to extend that to a museum's entire collection, even manifestly rubbish copies, is surely curious.

I see that one of the recipients is the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge. It's interesting to note that not so long ago the Fitzwilliam was so mindful of its independence to act that it refused an £80,000 gift from the Artfund, because it would have meant displaying a a small pink logo on one of its labels.

Update - Michael Savage wonders if the terms have been broken already.

Update II - the putative 'Caravaggio', which is the subject of a lawsuit against Sotheby's, was not included in the bequest. As I said earlier, I am reliably informed that it is certainly not by Caravaggio.

Update III - a reader writes:

With regard to the “strings attached” to Sir Denis Mahon's bequest, it seems to me that he is perfectly entitled to attach whatever conditions he likes. As you point out yourself, if any museum or gallery finds the conditions too onerous, they can decline the gift. In general, if someone wants works of art to be available to everyone they can reasonably require that no fee is charged to view them. In addition if they are bequeathed to the nation, selling them sometime later frustrates the donor’s intention, so this condition seems reasonable to me. Whilst it is unlikely that major institutions would come under control of an unscrupulous asset stripper, there is no harm in putting in some defence.

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