Arts: Galleries given time to raise pounds 9m to save Van Gogh

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British art galleries and collectors were yesterday given two months to raise pounds 9m and prevent a watercolour by Vincent Van Gogh, Harvest in Provence, from being exported and disappearing into a private collection in the United States.

The watercolour was described as the most important work on paper by Van Gogh, still in private hands, when it was sold by Sotheby's in London last June. The pounds 8.8m paid by an anonymous bidder on the telephone set an auction price record for a work on paper by the Dutch artist.

It appeared that the watercolour was about to go abroad after 70 years in an English private collection. But Mark Fisher, the arts minister, yesterday deferred a decision on an export licence for the work.

Though Sotheby's has not disclosed the identity of the buyer, it is rumoured to be an American collector. Had it been a gallery, Mr Fisher and the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, might have taken a different view, as at least the painting would go on public view. A decision on the export licence will be deferred until after 12 November.

David Barrie, director of the National Art Collection Fund, said: "This is undoubtedly one of the finest watercolours by Van Gogh and adds substantially to our appreciation of Van Gogh's technique and approach." It is the original version of the famous oil, known as La Charrette Bleue.

The watercolour was formerly owned by the distinguished collector, Anne Kessler, who purchased it in 1924. The most appropriate British purchaser would be the Tate Gallery in London which already has four van Goghs given by Mrs Kessler's uncle Frank Stoop. However, the Tate last year decided it would have no more international works dating from before 1900. The work dates from 1888.

The National Gallery does not acquire watercolours or drawings. And the British Museum could not afford it.