Tate director backs Art Fund’s call for UK export licence reform after Rembrandt fiasco

Charity will halt public campaigns to save art after another buyer withdraws export application

by Martin Bailey  |  1 February 2016
Tate director backs Art Fund’s call for UK export licence reform after Rembrandt fiasco
The foreign buyer of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet withdrew an export licence application just before the Art Fund launched a campaign to match the price. Photo: Andrew James; © Media Wales
The Art Fund is set to halt all public fundraising campaigns to save works that are under threat of export from the UK. Stephen Deuchar, its director, tells The Art Newspaper: “If no changes to the present system are made, we do not see how we can, in all conscience, launch fundraising campaigns to save export-stopped works.” He adds: “People will only donate to a campaign if they know a work can actually be purchased at the end of it.”

Deuchar is deeply disturbed by what he regards as abuses of the UK export system. This follows the debacle that ensued when the foreign buyer of a £35m work by Rembrandt, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (1657), withdrew an export licence application when the Art Fund decided to mount a public campaign to buy the picture for Wales. “We believe the UK export system should serve our public collections more effectively by requiring licence applicants to give a binding commitment that they will not thwart museums that want to match the price,” Deuchar says.

Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, also wants reforms to ensure that buyers confirm in advance that they will accept matching offers from UK public collections. “Without such a provision, future fundraising campaigns will be doomed to failure, as donors will not be inclined to give when their generosity may turn out to be an empty gesture,” he says.

Foreign buyers

Support from the London-based Art Fund, a charity with 110,000 members, is very often essential for UK museums that want to buy multi-million-pound works. If the charity ends its public campaigns for export-deferred works, there is likely to be a major impact on what is saved for the nation.

The Rembrandt portrait was sold last year by the trustees of Penrhyn Castle, in north Wales, to an anonymous foreign buyer. Sotheby’s, which handled the private sale, submitted an export licence application on the new owner’s behalf. The UK’s culture department deferred a licence until 15 February 2016 to enable a public collection to match the price. With tax concessions, this would have been £22.5m for a public collection.

Within days of the announcement of the deferral, the Art Fund was poised to launch a campaign. Its ambitious plan was to raise the sum and then donate the work to National Museum Wales for display in its Cardiff gallery.

But at the very last moment before the campaign was announced, the foreign buyer withdrew the export application, which means that the work will have to remain in the UK, probably for ten years. Although the owner may choose to lend it out for public display, it could also remain in the owner’s UK residence or in storage. Sotheby’s says that discussions are under way about a possible loan, and the obvious venue would be the Cardiff gallery of National Museum Wales. However, this would be a temporary solution, since any loan is likely to be for only a few years and the work would then probably go abroad permanently.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for UK export regulations for works of art, says in a statement: “The system is designed to strike a balance between the public interest and the rights of individuals to enjoy their property.”

Rembrandt Portrait proves final straw in a series of frustrating cases

• The most notorious case in which a foreign owner has withdrawn an export licence application when a UK museum set out to match the price is Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai (1776), which was bought by the Dublin-based businessman John Magnier. In 2003, after the work had been export-deferred, the Tate successfully raised £12.5m from an anonymous donor to buy it. Magnier then withdrew his licence application and the painting presumably remains in store in the UK (it was on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland between 2005 and 2012).

• Four objects bought by Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family were the subject of export licence applications that were withdrawn when museums tried to match the price. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London was thwarted in its attempt to buy the £7m Mantuan Roundel (around 1500) and the £3m Clive of India flask (early 17th century). The National Trust was unable to buy the £100,000 Clive of India huqqa (18th century) for Powis Castle. Similarly, the British Library was unable to buy the £250,000 watercolours of Calcutta by James Baillie Fraser (early 19th century). All four items are assumed to have remained in the UK.

• In 2010, the Qatar Museums Authority withdrew its export licence application for the £500,000 Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1733) by William Hoare after the National Portrait Gallery in London wanted to match the price.

• In 2011, the Italian buyer of the £1.6m Virgin and Child (1560s) by Luis de Morales withdrew the export licence application after the Bowes Museum in County Durham decided to try to match the price.

• A more complicated situation developed over Van Dyck’s self-portrait (around 1640). In 2014, the agent for the buyer, James Stunt, made an export licence application, but later pulled out of the sale when the National Portrait Gallery tried to match the price. The work was then offered to the gallery, which successfully raised the funds.

Saved: the Art Fund’s vital role in keeping works in the UK

Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks (about 1506-07). © The National Gallery, London.
Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks (about 1506-07). © The National Gallery, London.
During the past 12 years, the Art Fund has helped to mount public campaigns that have assisted museums in buying ten major works (or collections) worth a total of more than £70m. Although the fund contributed less than £5m from its own resources, its seed money and moral support proved vital in encouraging other donors, large and small, to come forward. Without its campaigns, most of these objects would not have been acquired by public collections. Four of the works had been subject to export deferrals: Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks (1506-07), acquired by the National Gallery in 2004 (£22m); the Macclesfield Psalter (around 1330), acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 2005 (£1.7m); Turner’s The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842), acquired by the Tate in 2007 (£5m); and Van Dyck’s Self-portrait (around 1640), acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2014 (£10m).

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