Thursday, 3 December 2015

'Saving' treasures

Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar has written an intemperate article about Britain's export controls, in the context of the sale of the Penrhyn Rembrandt. Bendor Grosvenor has written a considered response (naturally my choice of adjectives reflects my position in the debate!). I'd put a slightly different emphasis on the debate, so here are my thoughts: 
  • Prohibiting export of works of art is an arbitrary confiscation of private property. A picture that can only be sold in one country is worth less than one on the global market. Spanish law effectively confiscates pictures as soon as they arrive on their shores. It's bizarre policy to punish people for buying art. You can still believe in punitive tax on gifts and inheritance, and taxing the rich until the pips squeak, You can still disbelieve in the merits of private property. But punitively confiscating wealth if it's in the form of art is utterly bizarre.
  • I disagree with Bendor Grosvenor that the works of art that have been saved are those that objectively are most cherished by the nation. I think donors place a lot of belief in the expert assessments of works that must be saved. And I don't think they always make the right choices. Personally I'd take the Le Brun, which was let out without a squeak, over the Van Dyck. And I wholeheartedly agree with the museum director who told Bendor that the Penrhyn Rembrandt isn't the best in the country. Apparently the Art Fund has never failed in its appeals, which means they're probably taking too few risks. 
  • There really are some things that it's in the national interest to save because they are so strongly connected to the country. I'm not convinced that applies to everything that is export-blocked, and I don't think there is such a strong case for trying to save things simply because they are especially important. In any case, the really good things are usually the ones that get away because we can't afford them. I agree with Bendor that the answer is funding, not export controls. 
  • Stephen Deuchar completely misses the point of what the Art Fund ought to be doing: helping to pay for really good museum acquisitions. Limiting it to 'saving' the stuff that happens to be in the UK is needlessly limiting. Pictures that can be exported are worth more because they can be sold to a global market. The other side of that is that we can buy better things if we look around the world for the best acquisitions, rather than trying to 'save' things that happen already to be here, deferring to the historic judgment of British collectors. 
  • Here are some ideas from me on what to buy. And now I'm off to see the Gentileschi at Sotheby's. 


  1. "Spanish law effectively confiscates pictures as soon as they arrive on their shores"
    I think you have not read the Spanish Heritage Protection Law. I am sure that the law does not say this.

    1. No, I haven't. And yes, hyperbole. But it is very rare for first rate pictures to get export licences, and a Picasso that was taken to Spain by the Botin family (on a yacht) was claimed by the Spanish state as subject to their cultural protection laws. I don't think I'm exaggerating that much, though of course temporary import is permitted with the right documentation. General point is that some countries are incredibly restrictive on exporting cultural property.

  2. But the current Spanish Heritage Protection Act, does not discourage the importation of works of art, because a collector can prevent that their works bought abroad are declared unexportable by some administrative procedures. What discourages buying art are high taxes for importation.
    But yes Spain have restrictive laws to export cultural property for first rate works, but the reality is that in the XXI century very few first level works remains in private hands, most were sold or stolen from the XIX and XX centuries. The laws only serve to stop a bleeding

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