Extract of Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, Department of Culture Media and Sport

Ashmolean acquires threatened Manet portrait for £7.83m

Rebecca Atkinson, 08.08.2012
Painting saved from export abroad
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has acquired a Manet portrait for £7.83m following an eight-month campaign to stop the work from being sold overseas.

Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus
was sold to a foreign buyer for more than £28m at auction last year but was judged to be of outstanding cultural importance and placed under a temporary export bar until 7 August.

Under the terms of a private treaty sale, the painting was made available to a British public institution for 27% of its market value.

The Ashmolean launched a campaign to acquire the work in February and was awarded £850,000 from the Art Fund. The Heritage Lottery Fund pledged a further £5.9m grant towards the purchase in May, with the final money raised through grants and donations from trusts, foundations and private individuals.

The acquisition is the most significant in the Ashmolean’s history.

Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean, said: “This is one of the most important pictures of the 19th century which has been in Britain since its sale following the artist’s death in 1884. 

"Its acquisition has transformed the Ashmolean’s collection and has at a stroke made Oxford into a leading centre for the study of impressionist painting.”

The portrait is a first version of Le Balcon, now in the Musée d’Orsay, which is considered one of the key images of the impressionist movement. The portrait’s subject is Fanny Claus (1846–1877), the closest friend of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff who died of tuberculosis at the age of 30.

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Stuart Burch
MA Member
Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies, Nottingham Trent University
08.08.2012, 15:03
Once-upon-a-time export bars were justified on the grounds of ensuring that a work of art was being "saved for the nation". Interestingly, the portrait's new owner has rephrased this dubious claim. Manet's work, we are assured, has been "saved for the public" (http://www.ashmolean.org/manet/portrait/)

The purchase will, we are told, "completely transform" the Ashmolean, helping to turn it into "a world-leading centre for the study of Impressionist and post Impressionist art."

Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus is, in other words, a commodity used as a means of competing with rival collections, both in the UK and abroad. However, the Ashmolean is only able to take part in the competition because this particular item of trade has not been allowed to reach its true "value". This is due to the fact that "aesthetic importance" (http://www.culture.gov.uk/news/news_stories/8685.aspx) and national pride are deemed, in this instance, to outweigh considerations of mere money. The result being that the Ashmolean was able to purchase the item in question for only 27% of its market value.

The artwork's estimated worth on the open market "net of VAT" was £28,350,000 (http://www.culture.gov.uk/news/media_releases/8686.aspx). The enormous difference between this and the £7.83m paid by the Ashmolean represents a huge loss in taxation - at a time when Britain's economy is in a parlous state and when the government (it claims) is doing its utmost to close tax loopholes.

Mindful of this, the Ashmolean seeks to reassure us that it is "planning a full programme of educational activities, family workshops, and public events inspired by the painting."

But consider for a moment how many "educational activities" could be implemented for, say, £20 million (the difference between the "true" value of the artwork and the sum paid by the Ashmolean).

And, just because Manet's painting is now "publicly" owned, does not necessarily mean it will never again become a financial commodity. Alterations to the code of ethics mean that public museums in the UK are now able to "ethically" sell objects from their collections, albeit in exceptional circumstances.

This means that the same inventive logic and sleight of hand deployed to acquire Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus could be equally used to justify its future sale. As long, of course, that the money raised can be shown to be "for the benefit of the museum's collection" (http://www.museumsassociation.org/collections/sale-of-collections).

Where, however, will all this end? Might the change to the code of ethics be the first step towards the situation in the United States? San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for example, recently sold Bridle Path by the American artist, Edward Hopper in order to "benefit acquisitions"(!) Perhaps one day the Ashmolean could do the same with the support of the Museums Association and the connivance of the British government? The museum would go on to make a tidy profit from its Manet - some of which could then be used to support future "educational activities". And so it goes on...

With this in mind, I don't believe that the Ashmolean should have been allowed to buy the painting under these circumstances.

Instead, the British government should take a leaf out of the Museums Association's code of ethics. It ought to have allowed the export, on the condition that all monies raised in taxation from the sale were ring-fenced and used to fund "educational activities" in our museums. This would go some way to offsetting recent reductions in museum funding - with outreach and education programmes suffering disproportionately as a consequence.

This outcome would be far more ethical and more effective than the spurious tokenism used by the Ashmolean to disguise its glee at acquiring a work of art that only a fraction of "the public" will see or have any interest in.
08.08.2012, 21:45
What i find more disturbing is the rhetoric employed. The portrait was THREATENED. First of all as Jonathan Jones says in Save your rhetoric, the portrait in question is french, second of all its privately owned and sold, this is all a political game of words to justify the bargain price for the Ashmolean, This will only make it harder and harder for a legitimate art market to exists and only promotes the black market sale of art, since no private collector will risk selling a painting at a discount price to a museum for fear of it being SAVED for the UK.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
14.08.2012, 17:55
You can find the Jonathan Jones article that Rene is referring to here: http://www.museumsassociation.org/comment/05032012-save-museums-art-ashmolean-manet