The Metropolitan Museum of Art today announced the acquisition of a remarkable bronze roundel, attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli, who worked alongside Andrea Mantegna for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua; it is thought that the work was made in around 1500 for Isabella d’Este. Acquired from Daniel Katz Gallery in London for $23m, it is the second most expensive purchase the museum has ever made – a testament to the importance of a work that the Met’s director Max Hollein has described, in a statement, as ‘an absolute masterpiece, standing apart for its historical significance, artistic virtuosity and unique composition’.
The news also spells the final word in the long saga of ultimately fruitless attempts to secure the work for a UK institution. In 2003, the piece was unearthed among the possessions of the heirs of George Treby III, a Devonshire MP who probably acquired it during his Grand Tour of Italy in 1746.
When it appeared in an auction at Christie’s that year, James David Draper, curator of European sculpture at the Met, declared it ‘the most thrilling Renaissance bronze to appear on the market in ages’; it is thanks in part to a bequest from Draper, who died in 2019, that the museum has been able to realise his wishes in acquiring the work at last. Back in 2003, however, the Met was outbid at auction by Sheikh Saud al-Thani, a member of the Qatar royal family and minister of culture; the hammer price was just over £7m.
In London, the then-keeper of sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum advised the UK government’s Export Reviewing Committee against granting an export licence for the work; a committee report pointed both to ‘the outstanding beauty of its composition and its exquisite finish, its extreme rarity, its high quality and its unusually large size’, and to its provenance.
An export bar was put in place to allow a UK institution to raise funds to save the work for the nation. Although the V&A did secure the £7m required, Sheik al-Thani withdrew his application for an export licence, which left the work in limbo, in the ownership of the prince but stuck in the UK. He loaned it to the V&A from 2010–12 and it appeared in the Royal Academy’s blockbuster ‘Bronze’ exhibition in 2014.
Al-Thani died in 2014. In 2019 the work was sold to an anonymous buyer. The UK announced a further export licence deferral on 28 May last year, to provide a second chance for a UK institution to raise funds to acquire it. But the V&A told the Art Newspaper last June that, the pandemic having forced it to ‘significantly reduce overall acquisition budgets’, it would not be putting in a request this time around. No other institution announced serious intentions to raise the £17m at which it was now valued by the deadline of September 2021 and, although the Met suffered a Covid-inflicted shortfall of some $150m, it is the museum in New York that has made, in Hollein’s words, a ‘truly transformational acquisition.’