Why are we asking this now?
Because after being the star draw at the National Galleries in Scotland and London since the war, a private collection of 28 masterpieces, known as the Bridgewater Loan, could soon be leaving public view. The owner of the Old Master collection, the 7th Duke of Sutherland, has offered the National Galleries a deal. They can buy the collection's star Titian paintings – Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto – for £50m each. That would guarantee the paintings for public view for the next 21 years and ensure the collection, which also includes works by Raphael, Rembrandt and eight by the French classical artist Nicolas Poussin, is not broken up. If the money isn't found in the next four months, the Titians could end up overseas, and the remainder of the collection withdrawn.
National Gallery bigwigs have described the loss of the Titians as "unthinkable" – akin to the Louvre in Paris losing possession of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, or Florence's Uffizi gallery waving goodbye to its collection of Botticellis. But while art-lovers are in no doubt that purchasing the artworks is essential, others not so enamoured with the works may be left wondering why the nation would hand such vast amounts of cash to an aristocrat when post offices are closing, the NHS is as cash-strapped as ever and the police are refused what many saw as a reasonable pay rise.
Why are the paintings being sold?
The duke, Francis Egerton, who is the eighth generation of his family to act as custodian of the family's stellar art collection, said that he wanted to make the sale to diversify his family's assets. He says too much of the family's wealth was tied up in the 28 paintings which make up the Bridgewater Loan, which would fetch more than £1bn on the open market.
Are they important?
All in the art world are agreed that the Bridgewater Loan is one of the most important collections in private hands. John Leighton, the director-general of National Galleries of Scotland, described the current deal as "the most important Old Master paintings loan in any public museum". As for the two Titians up for sale, they are its principle draws – and its most valuable assets. The artist Lucian Freud described the paintings as "simply the most beautiful pictures in the world". The question that some are asking, though, is whether the purchases can be justified at a time when public funds are tight.
Does it have to be the state that stumps up?
No. In reality, packages to save art from the clutches of private collectors are made up of a variety of sources, including trusts, charities and private donations. Prince Charles grabbed the headlines when he stepped in to make a donation to halt the sell-off of Dumfries House, an 18th-century country house in Ayrshire, Scotland. But his foundation paid only £20m of the £45m price tag. The Monument Trust paid £9m, private funds paid about £1.5m, and the Arts Fund charity contributed £2.25m to the effort. The remainder of the cash came from the state. The Scottish Government gave £5m. The publicly-funded National Heritage Memorial Fund stumped up £7m. The difference in this case is the sheer size of the £100m pot needed. That means the public purse will have to be raided if the money is to be found.
Should we be handing public money to aristocrats?
It has been done before. In 2004, the National Gallery paid the Duke of Northumberland £22m for Raphael's The Madonna of the Pinks, which had been on display there since 1992. Most of the money came from National Lottery funding.
But the current dilemma is not necessarily a case of an aristocrat cashing in. The £100m price tag of the two Titians may sound a lot, but it is probably well below the price they could fetch on the open market. Art experts say they could actually be worth £300m.
The National Galleries have been pointing out that this is a unique opportunity to allay some long-held fears about the fate of these paintings. Nicholas Penny, the director of London's National Gallery, said: "For a century, the agitation to preserve great works of art in British collections for export has been animated by anxiety that Titian's great paintings Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto might be sold. Now the paintings have been offered on remarkably advantageous terms."
Why does the aristocracy own a lot of art?
France conveniently had a revolution, which resulted in placing much of the country's important private collections in public hands. The French Revolution also lies behind the journey of the Bridgewater Loan collection into the hands of the English aristocracy. A close relative of the French king Louis XVI sold the collection for a meagre £43,000 shortly after the unfortunate monarch was beheaded. The buyer was the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater – the ancestor of the 7th Duke of Sutherland.
Should we buy it?
They are truly great works, but some have argued that the state should already have some kind of ownership over them. After all, they have been kept secure, cleaned and some of the works in the collection restored and researched, all at a cost to the nation. And state intervention is actually quite uncommon. The Government has doubled the budget of the National Heritage Memorial Fund's income, but that still only gives it a budget of £10m a year until 2011.
What's the alternative?
If the paintings are not secured by the galleries, it is likely that they will be lost to the British viewing public and head overseas to richer galleries. Worse still, they could end up hanging in the hallway of a plutocrat's mansion, hidden from view. They have only been on display in the National Galleries in London and Scotland for so long because of a loan deal agreed in 1945.
Any other ways of stopping the artworks going abroad?
The Government could take the punitive measure of banning the export of works as important as these. The tactic has successfully been employed before, but only on a temporary basis – most notably with Turner's watercolour The Blue Rigi. The painting was "export-stopped" to give the Tate gallery time to find the £5m required to purchase the work. There was a quick response from the art world and the National Heritage Memorial Fund chipped in the rest. It all meant that The Blue Rigi was preserved for the public in just five weeks.
A temporary ban was also placed on Raphael's The Madonna of the Pinks in 2003 to give the National Gallery time to raise the £22m needed.
Should public money be spent on the Titians?
* If we let them go the Scottish National Gallery will lose a crucial part of its collection
* If we think great art on public display is a social good, we shouldn't baulk at the cost
* This is not a regular expense, but a one-off cost inevitable for a world-class museum
* With recession looming and public services creaking, art isn't a public spending priority
* Like other museums, the SNG doesn't have room to exhibit anything like all its paintings
* A foreign artist's work isn't part of Britain's heritage just because it's been here a whileReuse content