Director's Blog

Rembrandt: The campaign that never was

  • 3 December 2015
  • By Dr Stephen Deuchar
  • Director

In his Art Quarterly column, our director writes about our aborted campaign to save Rembrant's portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet and considers the complexities of the UK's art export control mechanisms.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (1607-1685), 1657 © Private collection, image: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, photo: David Gowers

If all had gone according to plan, the front cover of this issue [of Art Quarterly] would have been a late masterpiece by Rembrandt van Rijn, the famous 1657 portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet – the ‘Penrhyn Rembrandt’. Purchased for Penrhyn Castle (a National Trust property since 1951) by Edward Gordon Douglas-Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn, in 1860, this poised and powerful study of its quietly colourful and strong-willed subject has long been regarded as one of Wales’s greatest art treasures, with a rich history of public display both at the castle and elsewhere. It is indeed a mesmerising work – its 50-year-old sitter endowed by the artist with an individuality and sense of authority more usually reserved for his male subjects. Though her membership of an Amsterdam Mennonite sect may have precluded any extravagance in dress, her wealth and status are subtly revealed through a succession of painted clues, from the exceptional intricacy of her lace and gold cap through to the confidently eccentric presence in the background of her exotic pet parrot. The Penrhyn Rembrandt is a technically brilliant, beguiling study of character by one of the finest portraitists in the history of western art, rightly celebrated with pride both in Wales and across the UK.

Though consistently on public display, the picture has remained since its purchase in family ownership, latterly through a private trust. But in recent years, and to the consternation of many, it has been privately offered for sale on a number of occasions at an asking price far beyond the means of the most evidently appropriate public buyers – the National Museum of Wales, for example, or the National Trust itself. Earlier this year it was reported in the press that a provisional sale to a private buyer, at £35m, was underway, and that an export licence upon which the sale depended had been applied for. The UK Export Review process intends to monitor the flow of works going abroad, principally through the art trade, and incorporates procedures which allow any work deemed to be of special importance to be ‘export-stopped’ for a temporary period, during which a UK buyer may step forward with a ‘matching sum’ and secure the work instead for this country. Art Fund members and supporters will know of the many public fundraising campaigns we have mounted over the years to save works for UK museums within this system. So when the good news was finally announced by the Secretary of State that an export licence would indeed be temporarily withheld for the Rembrandt, we were ready, and began to build the framework for what would have been the largest, most ambitious campaign in our 112-year history.

Long before the proposed campaign launch date of Monday 26 October, we had entered into negotiations with a number of trusts, foundations, grant-givers and private individuals to ascertain whether the required sum of c. £22.5m (net of the c. £12.5m tax remission that would be available were the picture to go to a UK public body) might realistically be raised in time to meet the first deadline that had been set, February 2016. We concluded that if we could also benefit from a wave of public support this was indeed an achievable goal. We had learned a great deal – about the potential of digital technology, for example – through running five major appeals in the past five years (including, of course, for the Staffordshire Hoard, the Van Dyck self-portrait and the Wedgwood Collection) and are fortunate enough to enjoy the loyal support and confidence of many other grant-givers and donors beyond our 117,000-strong membership. So although success was not a foregone conclusion, it was a very real prospect. And the plan was that, if successful, we would donate the Rembrandt to the National Museum of Wales, which we would encourage to create a Welsh national partnership scheme through which the picture could be shared with a variety of smaller museums and institutions in an innovative and imaginative programme of exhibition, interpretation and community engagement.

Putting this great picture to such a powerful social purpose across Wales would, it must be said, also have provided a positive postscript to another, more controversial side to Penrhyn’s past. Not only had the family’s wealth originally derived from sugar and the slave trade, but their suppression of union activity and then strikes at the Penrhyn slate works in 1900-3 lies among the darkest chapters of Welsh industrial history. To this day many local people refuse to enter the castle by way of quiet retaliation. For all these reasons, the prospect of a sale by the Penrhyn trustees to the Art Fund, on behalf of the National Museum of Wales and the Welsh people more widely, rather than to a private overseas buyer, promised to be a welcome and potentially popular outcome. But this happy scenario was unexpectedly undermined at the eleventh hour by news conveyed to the Art Fund by Sotheby’s (acting as agents for both the Penrhyn trustees and the overseas private buyer) late in the afternoon of Friday 23 October.

With only a few working hours to go before the launch of our campaign, we were informed that Sotheby’s and the Penrhyn trustees, fearing the success of the imminent Art Fund campaign, had decided to pull out of the Export Review process and to proceed regardless with their private sale overseas. They had, it seems, accepted the consequent constraint that the new owner would need to keep the work in the UK for the foreseeable future, but presumably calculated that a new export application would almost inevitably succeed in the longer term, given that without the c.£12.5m tax remission applicable to the original sale, the eventual price (£35m plus inflation plus any appreciation in value over time) would all but certainly lie beyond the means of the Art Fund and its supporters.

Though we of course cancelled the public launch, we also made direct representations to Sotheby’s and to the Penrhyn trustees over the following three days in an effort to persuade them to adhere to the undertakings normally made to the Export Review committee (that applicants will co-operate with any public fundraising campaign and subsequently sell to a UK buyer at a matching price if the necessary funds are raised). Sadly, this appeal to respect both the normal procedures and the wider public interest was unsuccessful, and we were informed that the sale to the overseas buyer would go ahead immediately. Sotheby’s has since pointed out, by way of defence, that it is likely that the picture may now be offered by its new owner on loan to a UK museum for a while, so there may be a measure of public benefit, albeit temporary. Meanwhile the Penrhyn trustees, now facing a c. £12.5m tax bill through declining to sell to the nation, have suggested they will meet this by offering other works of art from their collection in lieu of tax. This will no doubt be considered by the Acceptance in Lieu panel in due course.

Though we may regret the actions of many players in this saga, we should not be surprised by them. The UK’s Export Review system – both looser in the controls it exercises and more cumbersome in the machinery it employs than systems employed elsewhere in Europe and beyond – has been unable to guarantee its central task (to stop national treasures going abroad) for some time. Its rules and procedures have been developed over the years under the close scrutiny and lobbying of the British art trade, which has always wished to ensure as much freedom as possible to sell works of art abroad. Much is made – both by those who run and those who participate in the system – of the ‘gentlemanly’ procedures and etiquette that determine how business is conducted. Declarations are made by applicants on the basis of their word rather than through any legal contract, and in the majority of instances, it is true, the system’s many loopholes are not excessively exploited and abused. But in the growing roll call of recent occasions on which an applicant has been economical with the truth about some aspect of a sale, or gone back on their word, or acted in a way that has casually overridden the public interest – as in the case of the Rembrandt – notably large sums of money have been involved. With £35m at stake, gentlemanly conduct will forever be in short supply.

Human behaviour will not change, so the systems that regulate it must change instead. The Art Fund has been lobbying for many years for radical improvements to the UK’s art export control mechanisms. As a consequence of their weakness, the permanent loss to Wales and the UK of the Penrhyn Rembrandt may now look almost inevitable, but we appeal to the Treasury, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport and the Arts Council and all those who support and run the present and outdated systems, to respond to this terrible lesson by committing to real action and reform, without further obfuscation or delay.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's winter 2015 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

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