Four panel paintings depicting the story of Joseph – made for the Borgherini bedroom in Florence, and now in the National Gallery – are the only works by Pontormo that are currently held in the UK’s public collections. So it was hardly surprising when, at the end of 2015, the culture minister imposed a temporary export bar on Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (1530), a display of painting as swaggering as its subject, and one of only 15 portraits attributed to this prodigy of Florentine mannerism.
Since its attribution to Pontormo in 2008, the work had been on loan from the seventh Earl of Caledon to the National Gallery. But in spite of the owner’s assurances that he would not sell the painting while it was on loan, and the principle of providing three months’ notice of any intention to sell – which would have granted a public collection the opportunity to purchase the work at a favourable, tax-deducted price through private treaty sale – the painting was sold for around £30 million while on loan, and the new owner swiftly applied to export it.
A year and further deferrals later, the National Gallery has raised the funds to make a matching offer to the purchaser, at the figure recommended by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). This despite the unexpectedly high price created by the stealthy nature of the sale, and in part thanks to an exceptional grant of £19 million from the UK treasury. At the time of writing in early December, however, the new owner of the work (revealed in the press as the New York-based J. Tomilson Hill) is reportedly playing hardball with the gallery, with the Art Newspaper suggesting that the dramatic fall in value of sterling since Hill acquired the portrait has left him out of pocket and disinclined to fulfil his commitment to accept the matching offer.
One can feel some sympathy for Hill, who may lose several million dollars on a transaction that took place months before the economic circumstances changed (although how would an overseas collector respond if the Reviewing Committee tried to revise its recommended offer for any work downwards in the reverse situation?). But the Reviewing Committee’s advice was set out clearly: ‘The Committee recommended the sum of £30,618,987 (representing the private sale price of £29m plus £1,618,987 commission of $2.5m converted into GBP at the date of the meeting at the rate 1.5441756581) as a fair matching price.’ Caveat emptor, as they say. If Hill does refuse to accept the offer, the painting will remain in the UK with further export applications prohibited for a decade.
One can’t help but feel that an audacious cultural brinkmanship has characterised the entire affair – beginning with the sale itself, which looks from the outside as though it may have been managed to price out the gallery from trying to purchase the painting. Indeed, the defiant, even combative attitude of the portrait’s sitter seems to have spread to all of the parties concerned for its future. This is the second time in little over a year that the export licensing system has come under strain (the first being the Penrhyn Rembrandt saga): while its arrangements are broadly considered fair to both public and private interests, they can only remain so to the extent that vendors and purchasers choose to endorse their spirit.
Public and private interests have long overlapped at museums, almost always to the benefit of the public. The purchaser of the Pontormo is himself a firm and generous supporter of some of the most important institutions in New York. But if, as Adrian Ellis suggests in these pages, many museums are increasingly to depend on private individuals to cover their operating costs, and if they are to be open to working with private collectors and collections, then it will be for the museums themselves to evaluate the parameters of this activity constantly, and to weigh up the opportunities against the risks to their operations and reputation. As this month’s Art Business column stresses, we should support those collectors who feel impelled to bring their private holdings before (often new) audiences. But increased private involvement must not lead to more public fallings out.
From the January 2017 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.