Who needs another Canaletto anyway?

  • 2 May 2006

Art Fund Director David Barrie writes about collecting for the nation and the problems with the Export Reviewing Committee's criteria.

Next month, a perfectly preserved collection of 19 watercolours by William Blake will be auctioned in New York. Discovered recently in a bookshop in Glasgow, they are works that the British government’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art is supposed to prevent leaving the country – and indeed, they were ‘export-stopped’ under the system.

But Tate could not find the funds to meet the £8.8 million price tag, so this extraordinary collection has not only been ‘lost to the nation’ but will also probably be broken up - to the dismay of Blake devotees everywhere.

They are only the latest in a long list of artworks that have evaded the UK’s export-stop regime. The system is designed to give UK collections the chance to buy if they can match the price being offered in the market. But in the last decade only half of all export-stopped items have actually been retained.

Last year this figure dropped to just one third; only nine of the 25 works were saved and by value this represented only 12%. Losses included major works by Francis Bacon, Jan Steen and the aforementioned Blakes, collectively worth more than £30 million.

The current system was set up in 1952. The Reviewing Committee, drawing on expert advice, can recommend that Ministers defer granting an export licence for a limited period of time, provided that an object has been in the UK for at least 50 years, and that it satisfies one or more of the three so-called ‘Waverley Criteria’.

These take into account the object’s historical, aesthetic and academic significance. If a UK institution or individual cannot raise the money in the time allowed, then an export licence is granted.

The biggest obstacle, of course, is the lack of money available to public collections, whether from public funds or private sources like The Art Fund and individual donors. We have pointed out for some time that the sums of money available to museums for purchases have declined steeply in the past decade, while art market prices have soared.

Time and again works are temporarily export-stopped – Michelangelo’s “Study of a Mourning Woman”, Rubens’s “Massacre of the Innocents” are just two examples - only to leave the country when no public collection can find the funds.

The Reviewing Committee itself recently asked whether it was worth retaining the Waverley system “given the limited success in saving objects”. The note of despair is understandable, but The Art Fund still believes that the UK needs an export-stop system.

Our primary aim, and the goal of our 80,000 members, is to enrich museum and gallery collections – to give as many people as possible the chance to experience great art at first hand. It’s only right that cash-strapped public collections are given a chance to raise the money to compete in the art market where the finest artworks and heritage items are at stake. But we can no longer rest on the largely chauvinistic arguments deployed in the past.

For instance, the current criteria take no account of the “end use” of the artwork. The only thing that matters is whether the object leaves this country or not – not whether it will be available for the public to see. What is the point in stopping the export of a work of art if it is going to disappear into someone’s private house? It is surely better for the object to find a place in a public collection, even if that’s outside the UK.

We should also be more relaxed about the export of works by artists who are already well represented in UK collections. There was some controversy recently when not a single UK museum came forward to buy two Canaletto paintings under export-stop. But the National Gallery alone already has 17 Canalettos: did we really need any more? Perhaps the museum community was tacitly giving its own answer.

The wrangle over Sir Joshua Reynold’s “Omai” sheds light on a further problem – stopping items that the owner has no intention of selling to a public collection. Its purchaser had applied to export this magnificent painting a few years ago and was stopped by the system. Tate wished to acquire it and was promised the necessary £12.5 million by an anonymous benefactor. However, the foreign buyer refused to sell to a public collection. Last year alone 20% of applications were withdrawn in a similar way, which meant a great deal of wasted effort all round.

Finally, and worst of all, the system completely ignores works of art that have either been imported or made in the UK within the last 50 years – regardless of their intrinsic quality or significance. Unless you take the perverse view that the value of a work of art to the ‘nation’ depends on its age or the length of time it has spent in the country, this makes absolutely no sense.

In the end, however, it comes down to money: how much are the British prepared to stump up - as a nation and as individuals - to keep works of art in the country and publicly available? It recently seemed that the British government might be prepared to take these issues seriously: the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced she was considering the establishment of a National Acquisitions Fund. But it was an illusion. Only four months later, her Minister in the Lords dismissed the idea, apparently on the grounds that no more money could possibly be found.

In any case, why reinvent the wheel? There are already a number of public bodies in existence – notably the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) - that would be well equipped to do the job if only they were adequately funded. The sector is agreed that plural sources of funding are advantageous, increasing the likelihood that objects of many different kinds can be saved. And The Art Fund – as an independent charity – has a crucial role to play. Over the last 5 years The Art Fund has contributed towards 60% of those export-stopped works saved. But we cannot be expected to bridge the widening gap that is opening up as a result of the chronic decline in the value of public funding and the rapid rise in art market prices.

We don’t need a new fund; we need much more money in the NHMF. It currently receives only £5 million per year. This will, it is true, increase to £10 million per year by 2007/08, but even then the NHMF’s income will remain significantly less than the £14 million it received when it was established way back in 1980.Take art market inflation into account – at a conservative estimate prices have risen fourfold over the same period – and the scale of the funding gap is clear. The NHMF has many duties beyond helping to buy works of art for museums; it is only reasonable to argue that its annual income should be raised to at least £25 or £30 million. This would go a long way towards restoring the credibility of an export control system that now looks more and more ineffectual.

But it’s not just about public money. We also need to be encouraged - as a individuals - to dip into our own pockets. The government should take a lead in promoting a climate of philanthropy in the arts, to strengthen the ability of museums to collect. The Art Fund has a robust, workable proposal for a new income tax incentive – ‘Living and Giving’ (see our website www.artfund.org) – designed to do exactly this. It’s unanimously supported by the sector, and we have even persuaded Treasury officials of its merits, but the Chancellor recently decided he was not willing to implement it – how depressingly short-sighted!

At the moment, the National Portrait Gallery in London is campaigning to secure an early portrait of John Donne that was mentioned in the poet’s will. After Shakespeare, Donne was arguably the greatest English poet of the late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries, and his portrait rightly belongs in our National Portrait Gallery. The Art Fund has put up £200,000 towards the cost of £1.65 million. If the NPG can’t raise the money, and an overseas buyer who is willing to pay that price emerges (all too likely), the Reviewing Committee will no doubt export-stop the work to give the NPG a bit more time. But will it make any difference? The export system is invaluable, but with a few adjustments and a healthy cash injection, it could work so much better.

‘Who needs another Canaletto anyway?’ Art Fund Director David Barrie writes about collecting for the nation and the problems with the Export Reviewing Committee’s criteria.

Read the article in the Financial Times