In July 2010, one of J. M. W. Turner’s finest works, Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, went under the hammer at Sotherby’s. Completed in 1839, the work was Turner's final landscape painting of Rome. The painting was offer for sale by a descendant of the family of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, which had owned the painting since 1878. In fact, it was only the second time that the painting had appeared on the open market since it was painted. Accordingly, the painting was said to be in an immaculate condition.
Turner’s masterpiece had, however, previously been on a long loan to the National Galleries of Scotland, and had also been displayed at the Royal Academy, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Therefore, when the auction was announced in March 2010, there were fears that the piece would be lost from public view when it was sold.
The painting was purchased at auction for 29.7 million pounds, setting a new auction record for Turner’s works, by a London dealer on behalf the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the Getty Museum will have to wait until at least 2 February 2011 to see whether an export licence will be granted to the painting, enabling them to take the painting out of the UK. The reason for the delay is that, at the beginning of November 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export ban on the painting, following the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA).
RCEWA is an independent body, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which advises Ministers of the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) on whether cultural objects, intended for export, are of national importance under specified criteria. Where RCEWA finds that an object meets one or more of the criteria, it will normally delay the decision on whether or not to grant an export licence to allow UK buyers time to raise the money to purchase the object in question at or above the fair market price. In this case, RCEWA judged that Campo Vaccino was of outstanding aesthetic importance, so closely connected with the UK’s history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune, and that every possible effort should be made to raise enough money to keep it in the United Kingdom. The amount that has to be raised to buy back the painting is £30,284,968.75 including VAT.
At present, the export ban will expire on 2 February 2011, when a decision will need to be made as to whether to grant an export licence application for the painting. This period may be extended until 2 August 2011 if it appears that there is a possibility of sufficient funds being raised to make an offer to purchase back the painting.
The export ban should not have come as a surprise to the Getty Museum. It was a declared condition of the sale that export would be reviewed. Furthermore, export of the Getty’s 2002 purchase of Raphael's The Madonna of the Pinks was similarly held up for two years, and then reversed when the National Gallery in London was able to reach an agreement to purchase the work for £22 million in 2004. However, if the money cannot be raised to buy back Campo Vaccino, by this time next year it will most certainly have gone to join a number of other Turner works in sunny LA.