An independent Scotland could lose some of its greatest Old Masters
Long-terms loans to national collections were agreed under UK tax rules
By Javier Pes. News, Issue 254, February 2014
Published online: 11 September 2014
The long-term loan of important Old Master paintings to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh could be threatened if Scotland votes “yes” to independence next week. A poll by YouGov published at the weekend showed the "yes" side narrowly leading for the first time. In February we reported that sources with close connections to Scottish institutions and collectors say there is a growing possibility that leading lenders will sell their works or move them south if, as is suspected, an independent Scotland’s tax regime changes to target the rich.
The paragraph that has sent chills down spines appears towards the end of the 667-page plan for an independent Scotland, which was launched at the end of November last year by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister.
The white paper, “Scotland’s Future”, says that “decisions on the tax system and all specific taxes… will be made by the parliament and government of an independent Scotland”. Major art collectors and owners of historic houses benefit from the UK tax system’s exemptions from inheritance tax. HM Revenue and Customs allows items to be exempt if they are of significant importance to the nation, if there is public access to them and so long as they remain in the UK.
Scottish institutions also benefit from a share of the works of art accepted in lieu of taxes owed to HM Revenue, another UK-wide scheme potentially affected if Scottish voters choose independence. An Arts Council England panel advises ministers on the allocation of items. On average ten items or collections are acquired by Scottish institutions a year via the scheme. For example last year the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) received a Dutch still life by Jan van Huysum valued at £2.45m.
The Scottish National Party says that if it came to power in an independent Scotland, it would maintain existing heritage taxation “until there was an opportunity to review [it]”. In February, Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, told the Times newspaper that if Scotland became independent: “They would be mad not to try and perpetuate the system of exemption from capital tax that has been instituted in this country which exempts you from death duty if you maintain some sort of public access to the painting.” The Historic Houses Association for Scotland is also concerned, seeking clarification whether the government of an independent Scotland would put in place the same or very similar tax schemes.
Raphael’s The Virgin and Child (The Bridgewater Madonna), around 1507, is on the Revenue’s list of exempt items. The Old Master is among 28 works by artists including Titian, Poussin and Rembrandt that are on long-term loan to the NGS from the Duke of Sutherland. The Duke of Buccleuch's Leonardo, the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, around 1501, is another significant loan, which has been on show in the Scottish National Gallery since 2009.
When asked about such concerns, few were willing to talk on the record—but, tellingly, no one chose to deny them. The NGS confirmed earlier this year that its trustees will consider “a wide range of potential consequences relating to the contents of the white paper [Scotland's Future]”. Ben Thomson, the chairman of the board of trustees, said: “We are extremely confident that we will continue to enjoy very positive support from the Scottish government for our ongoing collaborations with private collectors.” A spokesman for the NGS tell us that its position remains the same.
This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the February issue of The Art Newspaper
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