Friday 4 November 2011

UK bars export of Francesco Guardi's View of the Rialto Bridge

The UK's rules on exporting works of art (also discussed in Art and Artifice last year) stormed into action recently when Francesco Guardi's magnificent eighteenth century painting Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge, Looking North, from the Fondamenta del Carbon went on sale at Sotheby's in London.

Going nowhere: View of the Rialto Bridge
The huge work, originally purchased in 1768 by an English Grand Tourist and sold into the Guinness family in 1891, has now been bought by an anonymous bidder for almost £26.7m. But the painting is currently going nowhere; it has been temporarily barred from export by the arts minister, Ed Vaizey.

Owners wishing to export a work of art out of the UK must have a licence to do so where that work is over a certain age and value. An oil painting to be exported from the UK to another EU member state, for example, must have an export licence if it is over 50 years of age and valued at over £180,000.

Applications for such licences go to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, who may refer them on to expert advisers. These experts will consider whether the work fulfills any of the three 'Waverley Criteria' (is the work so closely connected to the country's history that its removal would be a misfortune? Is the work of outstanding aesthetic significance? And lastly, is it of outstanding significance for the study of some branch of art, learning or history?). If any of the criteria apply, the adviser may object to the work's export and a licence can be delayed, typically by two to six months.

The purpose of the delay is to allow time for a UK buyer to step in, find funds and retain the work for the nation. This system has allowed UK collections to retain many art objects which would otherwise have left the country. Perhaps most famously, Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks was bought by the National Gallery in 2004 following a long campaign to raise its £22m price tag, preventing its departure to the Getty in Los Angeles.

But not everybody is in favour of the process. It has been suggested that it could damage the London art market, leaving buyers frustrated when their purchases are prevented from leaving the UK. For sellers it can also be frustrating: if they refuse an offer from a UK buyer because they could get more from an overseas purchaser, an export licence may be refused entirely. Is it fair that the rightful owner is not free to sell where he can get the best price?

And what about instances where an object has little connection with the UK? It is easy to see a case for retaining works such as the collection of Thomas Hardy papers, recently saved from export and now in Dorset County Museum, Hardy's own county. But is there any reason that a painting of eighteenth century Venice should be in the UK rather than, say, the USA? And is it better that a work should remain in a private collection in the UK than go to a public collection in another country?

Amongst those who disapprove of the bars must surely be numbered the buyer of View of the Rialto, gazing sadly at his Guardi-less walls. We look forward to seeing whether the painting's new home will eventually be here in the UK.

Read more at the Guardian here.

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