National Gallery bid for £30m export-threatened portrait rejected - Museums Association

National Gallery bid for £30m export-threatened portrait rejected

Painting will remain in the UK but in private hands
Jonathan Knott
The American owner of a celebrated Renaissance painting has refused to sell it to the National Gallery, despite the institution raising £30m to match the price in a campaign to buy it for the UK collection.

But the painting will nonetheless remain in the UK after culture secretary Karen Bradley refused to grant the buyer, hedge fund executive Tom Hill, an export licence.

A temporary export bar was placed on Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap in December 2015 after it was bought by Hill. The National Gallery successfully raised the funds, including a grant from the UK government of £19.4m, to match the £30.6m price recommended by the Export Reviewing Committee. But Hill did not accept the offer. 

Stephen Deuchar, the director of the Art Fund, said that Hill’s refusal to sell highlighted the limitations of the UK’s art export control system. 

“Though it works well enough in many instances, in the case of the most important and sought-after works of art, it often does not,” said Deuchar.

He said that the rules governing the process whereby museums are given a period of time to raise funds to match the price for an artwork of cultural significance were “imprecise and difficult to enforce”. 

Deuchar said that there had been a number of similar occasions when a new owner or agent had simply refused to sell a work to a museum that had raised the required sum.

He continued: “Licence applicants should be required to give a clear and legally-binding commitment to abide by the rules – which they are not at present - and we have recommended a number of other specific improvements in addition.   

“We ask government to undertake a formal review of the process and to introduce these measures now to help better protect our nation’s most important works of art so they may remain in the UK, held in trust for current and future generations.”

The Art Fund pledged £750,000 to the fundraising campaign to buy the painting. In the past, Deuchar has suggested that the charity may have to stop its fundraising campaigns to save works of art threatened by export unless the rules, procedures and policing of the export licence system are reformed.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said: "We have prevented this extraordinary piece of art from leaving the country, and hope to see it on public display at some point in the future."

The decision not to grant Hill an export licence is in line with DCMS guidance. If a matching offer is refused by an applicant, any subsequent application for an export licence within the following 10 years would normally be denied.

In a statement, the National Gallery said that if it had acquired the painting it would have been the focus of a public programme, including a touring exhibition and educational activities at five museums across the UK.

The portrait is one of only 15 by Pontormo that survive. Academics believed the painting was lost forever when it disappeared in the 18th century, but it was rediscovered in a private art collection in 2008. 

Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557) was a major 16th century Florentine painter. There is no portrait by him in any UK collection.

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