Policy & research

How Art Fund has worked to ensure national treasures are no longer lost to the UK

Salvador Dalí and Edward James, Lobster Telephone, 1938
Salvador Dalí and Edward James, Lobster Telephone, 1938

Art Fund has long campaigned to improve the export licence system that protects our national treasures from being sold overseas. Sarah Philp, Art Fund’s director of programme and policy, reflects on the journey to get new measures in place, and what this means for our museums.

For many people, Art Fund is inextricably connected to ‘saving’ great works of art, leading fundraising campaigns to bring them into public ownership and onto the walls of museums and galleries across the UK. This is exciting and rewarding work – a looming deadline, a seemingly impossible sum of money to raise, lots of media coverage and, always and most importantly, an extraordinary work of art.

But our efforts don’t always play out so publicly, with celebrity endorsements and appeals to the generosity of Art Fund members and an art-loving public.

For all the successes, including recent acquisitions such as Salvador Dalí and Edward James’ Lobster Telephone (1938) and Joseph Anton Koch’s 1794 sketch The Schmadribach Waterfall near Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, there have also been the ones that got away. Sometimes this is because the value of the work is such that it makes for an insurmountable challenge – at the top end of the art market prices for works of ‘museum quality’ keep on rising.

But sometimes it is because the mechanisms designed by Government to support, preserve and ‘save’ national treasures haven’t always worked as well as they could – or in the public interest. Here, our campaigning looks very different, and distinctly less glamorous, as we work behind the scenes with policy and decision makers, civil servants, museum-sector bodies and MPs to effect change.

Some readers may remember former Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar’s column in the winter 2015 Art Quarterly, describing plans to launch a campaign to secure Rembrandt’s Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (1657) for National Museum Cardiff. This virtuosic, mesmerising character study that had a long and important connection to Wales had been sold. It was subsequently ‘export stopped’, following consideration of its national significance by a panel of experts administered by Arts Council England known as the Reviewing Committee.

The licence required by the vendor to export the work overseas and complete the sale was deferred. This deferral, signed off by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was intended to give a UK museum the chance to raise the money needed to match the sale price, so the painting could join a public collection.

The Export Review system is designed to balance the complexities of the art ecosystem: the rights of the owner, the commercial interests of the art market, the idea some works of art represent or reveal aspects of our national culture or character or moments in our history, and the public interest championed by our museums and galleries are all – rightly – part of the process. In practice, it was at risk of abuse. For a museum to acquire an export-stopped work, the vendor had to agree to accept its offer, superseding the original sale. And this agreement relied on that most charming, anachronistic and unenforceable of things: a gentleman’s agreement.

This often worked, but sometimes it did not. Rembrandt’s Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet is one example, where weeks of planning at Art Fund and National Museum Wales became redundant when the vendors withdrew their export application and pressed ahead with their private sale hours before our campaign launch. In February 2017 the National Gallery’s ambition to acquire Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (1530), described by critic Jonathan Jones as a ‘masterpiece of love and war’, was stymied – despite the gallery raising the £30 million needed – by the US buyer’s refusal to accept the matching offer.

Success at last

For nearly 20 years Art Fund has been advocating to Government for changes to this system – intended to protect our national treasures – and principally to introduce a requirement for a legally ‘binding offer’ rather than a gentleman’s agreement. This, we argued, would ensure museums had the confidence to embark on challenging, time-consuming fundraising campaigns, and that donors would similarly have confidence that the only thing standing in the way of a successful acquisition was raising the money.

Over the years our advocacy has become a collective effort, bolstered by museums including National Museum Wales and the National Gallery as well as membership organisations including the Museums Association, National Museum Directors’ Council and the Association of Independent Museums. Finally, in 2018, with increasing evidence of the shortcomings of the system and increasing numbers of voices calling for review, the Government agreed to a consultation on how it could be strengthened – principally, the advantages of introducing a legally binding 'options agreement'.

On 1 January 2021, legally binding offers took effect as part of the process. This campaign may not have grabbed the headlines – and it may have taken 20 years – but the success is just as sweet. With these strengthened measures, Art Fund and the UK’s museums will now be able to fundraise publicly in good faith to bring export-stopped works of national importance into museum collections for the benefit of everyone forever.

A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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