Tomorrow, however, is yet another nail-biting deadline in the saga which already stretches over 14 years. Peter Brooke, the Heritage Secretary, is thinking of changing Britain's export licensing rules so as to prevent its departure and has asked leading art market and museum authorities to tell him their reactions to the proposals by tomorrow night.
The Getty Museum in California, the world's richest museum, is currently attempting to buy the statue for pounds 7.6m, which is the highest price ever recorded for a sculpture. It's the second time they have put in a bid, subject, on both occasions, to the owner getting an export licence - the sculpture is owned by a company registered in the Cayman Islands. The Getty's first attempt to buy it ended in May 1990 with an export licence being refused.
The patience of the museum's director, John Walsh, is wearing thin. He has handled the long-drawn-out negotiations personally and is clearly upset by the Government's latest delaying tactics - namely, to defer a decision on the granting of an export licence until the national lottery money comes on stream in early 1995 because it might enable a British museum to match the asking price. 'If they want the sculpture so much, why don't they buy it?' said a Getty Museum spokesman last week.
He had a good deal of justice on his side. Never has there been such a fantastic muddle over a single work of art. None of the parties involved, with the possible exception of the Getty, comes out of it with any credit. The saga is an object lesson in how not to play heritage restrictions.
The statue is one of the key masterpieces of the top sculptor of the neo-classical movement, which flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Canova's statue depicts the three Graces of classical myth, goddesses of fertility and daughters of Zeus. The exquisite proportions of the lightly draped beauties, the originality of their association in a formal dance and the high finish of the white marble matched the highest ideals of taste at that time.
Canova made two versions of this composition. The first was commissioned by Napoleon's consort, the Empress Josephine, and ended up in the Russian imperial collection - it is now in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The 6th Duke of Bedford saw Canova working on it in Rome in 1814 and was so dazzled by its beauty that he commissioned a second version for himself.
In its honour he converted a vast conservatory that was attached to the stables at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire into a sculpture gallery. He got a leading architect of the day, Sir Jeffrey Wyatville, to design a circular temple at one end of the gallery where the Graces could be mounted, imported a collection of antique carvings from Italy and bought sculptures from other leading neo-classical sculptors, such as Flaxman and Thorwaldsen, to fill the rest of the space. Canova's statue was installed in Wyatville's temple in 1819.
And there it remained until the 13th Duke of Bedford inherited Woburn in the 1950s and, in an attempt to fend off the devastating pressures of taxation, began to convert it into one of Britain's prime tourist attractions. The sculpture gallery was turned over to the catering department
and many of the sculptures, including The Three Graces, were removed to other parts of the house to make space for money-spinning functions.
The Duke, now 76, has retired to Monaco and handed over the running of Woburn to his eldest son, the Marquess of Tavistock. At the time of the handover, in 1979, an extra million was desperately needed and Christie's were asked to negotiate with the Government over ceding the Canova to the nation in lieu of tax.
A deal was very nearly sewn up. A valuation of pounds 1.2m was agreed but the Government insisted that it would accept the sculpture only if the Tavistocks put it back in Wyatville's temple and gave the public access to it. The Tavistocks refused.
Then came the famous 'Treasure Houses of Britain' exhibition at the
Washington National Gallery in 1985, a showcase of artistic treasures from British stately homes, opened, amid a tremendous palaver, by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Tavistocks sent over Canova's sculpture and alerted American museums to its existence.
At this point an element of mystery enters the saga. The statue was sold, reputedly for pounds 1.25m, to a company registered in the Cayman Islands called Fine Art Investment and Display. Nothing is known of the company except the name of the Geneva lawyer, Luc Hafner, who acts as its director; it is presumed that the company is an arm's- length vehicle to ensure the Tavistocks a beneficial interest in the resale of the sculpture in a tax-efficient manner. The sale of the sculpture did not become public knowledge until a deal with the Getty was struck in 1989. Then all hell broke loose and the muddle began to be compounded.
In June 1989 the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, which advises the Government on the issuing of export licences, recommended a six- month delay to allow British museums time to look for money to match the pounds 7.6m export price. Under existing regulations, an export licence could only be refused if a British institution was prepared to offer the same price as the foreign buyer; six months was the longest delay then considered appropriate.
By the time the six months had run out, however, a new issue had been raised. Bedfordshire County Council had asked the Department of the Environment to investigate whether the sculpture was in law a 'fixture' of a listed building and therefore inalienable to Woburn. In a Commons statement in November 1989, the Minister, Christopher Patten, fudged the issue; he said, in effect, that the sculpture was a listed fixture but that he did not intend to take enforcement action.
A heritage ginger group, called Save Britain's Heritage, was so incensed by this decision that they decided to challenge the Minister in the courts and initiated a judicial review. It did not get to court until May 1990 when the Department of the Environment was granted a further adjournment to consider new evidence. That lies at the heart of the subsequent muddle.
When the initial six-month delay in granting an export licence ran out in December 1989 it was extended for a further three months. The Victoria & Albert Museum launched a public appeal in January 1990 in an attempt to raise money but only managed to find pounds 330,000. In February 1990 Jacob Rothschild, now Lord Rothschild, came up with an ingenious suggestion. He had recently inherited the pounds 90m estate of his cousin Dorothy de Rothschild and suggested that her estate buy The Three Graces and cede it to the Government in lieu of tax - if the Treasury would play ball.
But the Treasury did not like his scheme. Instead, Nicholas Ridley, then Trade and Industry Secretary, announced a further three-week extension of the export stop to 4 April and a change in the export regulations. In future, he pronounced - with no prior consultation - an export licence could be refused if any private citizen in Britain, not just an institution, was prepared to match the export price. Two reclusive Scottish millionaires, David and Frederick Barclay, offered to buy the sculpture and Ridley duly refused to issue an export licence. The deal, however, could not go through until the 'listed fixture' issue was resolved.
In February 1991 Michael Heseltine, then Environment Secretary, announced that his review of the evidence proved that The Three Graces was a saleable 'chattel' rather than a 'fixture'. Under law, Save Britain's Heritage had a further three months in which they could appeal against the ruling - but they had no money and let the opportunity slip by. What happened next is unclear; it is only known that Fine Art Investment and Display demanded interest payments on the pounds 7.6m purchase price and that the Barclays eventually withdrew
The Cayman Islands company was thus left with the sculpture on its hands but no export licence and no buyer. Last year it asked the National Heritage department for permission to re-apply for an export licence; it was granted after the department had reviewed confidential documents on the failure of the Barclay brothers' deal. The Getty Museum then renewed its offer.
It could be described as outrageous that the Government has kept the parties to this pounds 7.6m deal waiting for five years - let alone adding another 18 months until the national lottery comes on stream. On the other hand, in France, Germany or Italy a work of art of this importance could be denied an export licence without any effort being made to match the price. Britain's export regulations remain the fairest in Europe - but the system is creaking at the joints.
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