17 MAY 2003, Page 43

New ways to keep Old Masters

Our artistic heritage is in danger of disappearing abroad, says Susan Moore

t seems that hardly a week goes by without the threat of another great work of art leaving these shores.

Certainly Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota must think so. Just as he announces, with palpable relief, that a private benefactor has stepped forward and promised £12.5 million to 'save' Sir Joshua Reynolds's celebrated portrait of Omai from export (more of that later), the gallery may well feel obliged to embark on a new campaign to save yet another costly treasure.

This jewel is a recently discovered 'lost' portfolio of 19 highly finished and perfectly preserved William Blake watercolours, the original illustrations to Robert Blair's poem 'The Grave', commissioned by the publisher Robert Cromek in 1805. According to the Blake specialist Martin Butlin. the portfolio is 'arguably the most important Blake discovery since he began to be appreciated in the second half of the 19th century'. As Cromek published only 12 illustrations, seven of the watercolours are in effect 'new' Blakes (one other unpublished watercolour for the project exists at Yale). Four or five of the sheets probably rank among the most important watercolours the artist ever made; the image of .Death's Door', for instance, with the hunched old man entering the stone door of the grave on crutches, his regener

ate self sitting atop the tomb, one of the most familiar.

The story of the portfolio's discovery two years ago (in a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow), its purchase for a song (about £1,000) and ultimate sale for a price which may well exceed £10 million is the stuff of dreams for every junk-shop browser. It is the stuff of nightmares for a museum director.

All began well enough when the Yorkshire bookdealers who bought the portfolio offered it to Tate and, after rejecting its initial £2 million offer, accepted a proposed £4.9 million. The gallery was given five months to find the funds. Meanwhile, a dispute had broken out over the portfolio's ownership. An out-of-court hearing settled on a division of proceeds several ways but, unfortunately for the gallery, its arrangement had been with only one set of vendors. Days before a scheduled meeting at Tate in December last year, the London private dealer Libby Howie nipped in and offered the bookdealers a significantly higher sum on behalf of private clients. The vendors accepted. Ms Howie now reveals that an application to export the portfolio will probably be made in the next few months.

This unfolding saga might run to even more episodes than `Omai: Noble Savage'. Unsettlingly, the Blake story and any number of similar cases offer more than a sense of déjà vu. Two years ago, when Tate learnt that the portrait of Omai was to be the latest Castle Howard masterpiece to head for the auction block, the museum offered to buy it privately for £5,5 million. Simon Howard and his trustees declined. At Sotheby's, the painting realised a princely £10.3 million. By the end of last year, when the British government had received an application to export the picture, its price had risen to £12.5 million, a figure reflecting the agent's fee and the picture's perceived rise in value. The price of the Blake is set to rise even more. Ms Howie, who feels she paid a good price for the portfolio, believes that such a fantastic market rarity — most works by Blake are in UK or US institutional collections — is worth in excess of £10 million, It is clear that British museums, with acquisitions funds cut or frozen, cannot cope with raising the kind of sums of money that works of art can now com mand, even with the support of the heritage bodies and charitable art funds. When the National Gallery attempted to purchase the sensational rediscovered Rubens, 'The Massacre of the Innocents', last year, the gallery had at its disposal what turned Out to be a fraction of the painting's £50 million market value. Moreover, the government is not rushing to contribute through a one-off Exchequer grant to that other prize still in the pending file, Raphael's 'Madonna of the Pinks'. The National Gallery, which reattributed the painting to the Renaissance master and then had it on loan for a decade, believed that the late Duke of Northumberland had given it first refusal. The new Duke and his trustees had different ideas, and sold the painting for 550 million to the Getty Museum. To Los Angeles it will go unless a matching offer is made by a UK institution or individual by 27 August.

All three cases reveal some uncomfortable home truths. Not least is the decline in the kind of national sentiment that predisposed owners of important works of art to sell, let alone give, works of art to all-butpenniless national collections. A large part of the problem is that family trusts oblige owners to achieve the highest possible price for any work of art. Sadly, cases such as Cimabue's 'Virgin and Child', spotted at Benacre Hall in Suffolk three years ago by a Sotheby's specialist and which the owner withdrew from auction to sell privately to the National Gallery, and the Duke of Sutherland's 'Venus Rising from the Sea', which was acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland earlier this year, are glorious exceptions rather than the rule. There will always be an individual or museum prepared to pay the kind of dizzying price for any acknowledged masterpiece that all but precludes a British institution from raising matching funds.

Whether as villain or white knight, it seems that the individual will assume an ever bigger role in Britain's heritage drama. In 1990, in response to the hue and cry over Canova's 'Three Graces', which the Duke of Bedford wished to sell to the Getty Museum for £7.6 million, the government introduced what have become known as the 'Ridley rules'. These allow for a private individual to match the funds an overseas buyer has offered for a work of art deemed to be of national importance. In the event, the 'Three Graces' was acquired jointly by the V&A and the National Galleries of Scotland, but since then six works of art — paintings and furniture — have been acquired by individuals. Among them are paintings by Gauguin and Ribera, and De Troy's 'La Lecture de MoHere', sold at the Houghton sale at Christie's in 1994 for £3.9 million.

There have been even more instances where private individuals have wished to step into the breach. No fewer than three collectors, as well as the British Museum, had their eye on the Jenkins Dog, the famed 2nd-century Roman marble hound brought to England in the mid-18th century that now graces the BM's new Great Court but which was about to bound across to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for $950,000 in 2001. And now an anonymous benefactor has stepped forward for Omai.

It remains a moot point, of course, whether it is better for a work of art to be in a private collection in the UK rather than in a public institution overseas, even though the former is obliged to ensure reasonable public access, adequate conservation and security, and undertake not to sell the object for a specified period. It is believed that Omai's white knight, for instance, and his lady in her lifetime, will have some enjoyment of the portrait before it ultimately goes into the gallery's permanent collection. Of course, neither party may see it; Omai's owner — thought to be the family of the Irish bloodstock millionaire John Magnier — has not yet accepted the matching offer. Nor is he or she obliged to. Various owners have preferred to keep an export-stopped work in Britain — even in store, if need be — rather than relinquish it to a museum.

If British institutions are to add major works of art to their collections, it will be courtesy of ever more generosity, gifts and bequests from private individuals. In his last Budget speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed to consider tax concessions to encourage private donations of works of art, promising to 'review the incentives, reliefs and exemptions available to help .. . museums make acquisitions of works of art . . . which should not be lost to the nation'. At least when it comes to saving the national heritage, even he is amenable to the idea of privatisation.