Artwork saved! But was it worth it?

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A Titian masterpiece was yesterday rescued for the nation – for £45m. But should we have just let it go?

How many Titians does one nation need? You can never have enough, claimed the director of the National Gallery after raiding his reserves to add one more masterpiece to the collection for a £45m fee. But while reuniting Diana and Callisto with its £50m companion Diana and Actaeon has delighted the National Gallery, the belief that every great work must be "saved for the nation" is being tested by the straightened economic climate.

The National Gallery has admitted that its reserves are now severely depleted after raiding its coffers to keep one of the greatest works by the Italian Renaissance painter in public ownership. Diana and Actaeon was purchased after a public appeal three years ago.

The 16th-century Titians will be shared between the London gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh after the Duke of Sutherland, who offered both works to the nation, agreed to knock £5m off the Callisto. The Scottish Government, which gave £12.5m to the Actaeon appeal, declined to contribute.

Concluding that a public appeal would appear inappropriate in the economic climate, the National Gallery was forced to delve deep into its own reserves to raise the money. The Trustees agreed to spend £25m from the £32m which has been accumulated from 67 bequests over the past century. Donations from The Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and anonymous contributions, some for up to £500,000, made up the shortfall, with the Duke accepting a £45m price.

Dr Nicholas Penny claimed that "no greater pair of old master paintings could possibly be secured" for the nation. But he admitted the buy: "Had wiped out all the obviously available funds in reserve. We have depleted our reserves very considerably with this purchase." With 20 Titians already in the National Gallery, did it really need to spend so much on one more, however distinguished? "It's like saying you've got one Shakespeare play, do you need any other ones?" Dr Penny said. "I don't know if you can have too many Titians."

The oil painting, which depicts the goddess of hunting expelling Callisto, who had been made pregnant by Jupiter, was a bargain, Dr Penny suggested: "£45m sounds like a whopping sum but the market value for these Old Masters might well be twice as much. These two great paintings were always intended to hang together."

The Duke of Sutherland said: "I am delighted that these two great masterpieces will remain together as they have been since they were painted in 1556 to 1559 and on view for the public in Britain. I congratulate the two galleries on their success."

But would the Duke really have sold both works if he hadn't received £95m or was this an elaborate game of bluff? Dr Penny said: "The Duke did not say he was going to sell these pictures, he said, 'We need this sum of money'."

Lord Gowrie, the former Arts minister and chairman of Sotheby's, said: "It sounds a tremendous amount of money but this is an extremely good deal for one of the greatest Titians." That deal means that Bridgewater Collection, which has been on almost continuous display in the UK for the past 200 years, and is the greatest private collection of Old Masters in the world, will remain at the National Galleries of Scotland.

However Bendor Grosvenor, a London art dealer and Old Masters expert, questioned the funding balance. He wrote on the Art History News blog: "I'm staggered that the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is awash with more money than it has ever had, only coughed up a measly £3m. That's about the same as it spent on accommodation, postage and office equipment last year."

Carol Plazzotta, senior curator at the National Gallery, was convinced of the Titian's value. Hanging the new acquisition was an "emotional moment". She said: "These are two of the greatest moments in the entire history of painting."

Diana and Callisto will be joined by Diana and Actaeon in July at the National Gallery and remain on show for 18 months. The paintings, created for King Philip II of Spain and inspired by scenes from Ovid's poetry, will then go to Scotland for a year.

Art for art's sake: Masterpieces that cost millions

Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child

A Texas museum offered the Earl of Wemyss £15m for Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child. A fundraising campaign helped the National Galleries of Scotland to acquire it for £10.25m in 1999.

Portrait of Omai

An anonymous benefactor gave Tate £12.5m to allow the gallery to buy and keep Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai. The work, featuring a Polynesian boy brought to Britain in 1774, had been sold for £10.3m in 2001.

The Blue Rigi

A 2007 fundraising appeal helped save this outstanding 1842 Turner watercolour depicting Lake Lucerne, sold for a watercolour record of £5.8m but subject to a government export ban.

Three Graces

Canova's Three Graces, the most expensive statue in the world, was acquired jointly for the V&A and National Galleries of Scotland for £7.6m in 1994. The Getty Museum failed in legal action to try to acquire the sculpture.

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