Art sales prompt calls for rethink of licensing rules

Gareth Harris, Issue 110/08, p11, 02.08.2010
Concern over loss of masterpieces to overseas buyers
Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), has called for a “more imaginative” approach to licensing the export of art following the sale of several masterpieces from UK country homes to buyers overseas.

The V&A, along with the Ashmolean in Oxford, is keen to acquire a bronze relief by Pierino da Vinci — Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (c1549) — which was sold by the Chatsworth House Trust to the Prince of Liechtenstein for £10m.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey has placed an export bar on the work until 13 September. “At £10m, it is beyond our reach,” said Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean, which owns versions of the da Vinci work in wax and terracotta.

“Tax benefits may help, but this isn’t a new problem. Major works of art from the UK have been lost to collections abroad for a number of years.

“It is going to be very difficult to raise matching funds,” agreed Jones. “Let’s look at a way of using existing legislation to benefit the British public at a time when funds for acquisitions are smaller in real terms than they were in 1980, when the National Heritage Memorial Fund was founded.”

Jones said export licence applicants should be able to suggest proposals to the export reviewing committee that demonstrate “continuing benefit to the British people”, by ensuring, for example, that the work is regularly shown in a UK museum.

He added that museums in the UK could work with counterparts abroad, such as the Getty, which recently purchased a work by Turner.

Nick Way, director general of the Historic Houses Association, said: “We would like the government to allow owners [of houses open to the public] to offset maintenance and conservation costs against income tax.”

Recent sales from historic houses

  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire: a bronze relief by Pierino da Vinci has been sold for £10m to the Prince of Liechtenstein, according to the Art Newspaper. Sotheby’s will auction 20,000 items from the Chatsworth estate in October.
  • Monteviot House, Jedburgh: the seat of the Marquis of Lothian, who consigned the Great Silver Wine Cistern (1705-06) to Sotheby’s, where it sold for £2.5m last month.
  • Dalmeny House, near Edinburgh: housed Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino (1839) by JMW Turner until 1978, when it was loaned to National Galleries of Scotland. The painting was sold last month at Sotheby’s to the Getty Museum for £29.7m.
  • Althorp, Northampton: three sales of works from Earl Spencer’s mansion made £21.2m in total at Christie’s last month. 

Image: detail from Rubens' A Commander Being Armed for Battle, which was part of the Spencer collection, sold for £9m in July