A tragic day for museums

Maurice Davies, 27.11.2013
Croydon's sale raises questions about competence and export licensing
As of this morning, the auction of items from Croydon’s Riesco collection is complete.

It’s a tragedy that the sale went ahead. The fault is Croydon Council’s, of course. But their decision-making appears to have been flawed and there was a good chance of judicial review.

But that needed more money than could be raised by the brave, but cash strapped, South Croydon Community Association. Where’s the hard support from the big guns of the museum world when it’s needed?

So, Christie’s Hong Kong, 10.30am and we’re off. 10.30am Hong Kong time is 2.30am, where I live, so forgive me if I missed the auction itself; early information from Christie’s website suggests the sale has raised less than half the £13m that avaricious councillors were hoping for.

(The numbers: total price realised is £8.2m, which includes buyers' premiums of around 20% due to Christies, which leaves about £6.5m for Croydon - minus any seller’s premium, tax and other sale costs.)

Is raising half what was hoped for a good or bad thing? The first reaction might be mild glee that Croydon bureaucrats and politicians will be seen as incompetent. But of course it’s not good news. If you’re going to asset strip, however unethically, you’d better get the best price for the public.

But getting the best price isn’t straightforward.

A few months ago the British Postal Museum and Archive raised only 10% of the amount expected from its – perfectly ethical – Sotheby’s sale of duplicate stamps.

And in 2010 one of the two paintings offered at Christie’s by the Royal Cornwall Museum failed to sell at auction, although it did sell later.

The art market is a highly complex place and this sad record of dashed hopes suggests museums (and local authorities) may not be competent to join it, or at least don’t properly allow for its risks and uncertainty.

The Croydon sale raises another point, too. The Riesco items were cleared speedily for export, and granted a permanent export license even though it was widely known that the items were destined for unethical sale.

I’m sure that was in line with the arcane, even archaic, rules of the UK’s export licensing system.  

That raises questions about the purpose of the export licensing regime.

Export licensing apparently can’t delay an unethical sale, potentially subject to judicial review - which is pretty hopeless.

On the other hand, in an unpleasant display of little-Englandism, it did prevent the National Gallery of Australia acquiring two pictures it bought directly from the owner in good faith.

Created after the second world war, is the export licensing system still fit for the 21st century?