Lottery funding to buy artworks has fallen dramatically because it is going to projects as diverse as improving urban parks and building village halls, new figures have revealed.
In a hard-hitting annual report, a committee set up to help stem the loss of important pieces to foreign collectors says the problem is worsening.
Among the works which went abroad last year because no suitable buyer could be found in Britain was a Rembrandt painting dated 1667. Even if the Heritage Lottery Fund had contributed its maximum grant of pounds 7m - 75 per cent of the value - it would have used up 70 pre cent of its annual budget for acquisitions.
Contributions from the lottery dropped dramatically in 1998-99, to just one quarter of their 1997-98 level. While just over pounds 23m was spent during Labour's first year in office by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, in its second year the figure dropped to just pounds 5.8m.
The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art,
is chaired by Sir John Guinness, said most galleries could not raise the money needed for the most important works.
As well as Rembrandt's Portrait of an Elderly Man, Nicolas Poussin's Landscape with a Calm and Fra Bartolommeo's Holy Family with the Infant St John had been sold abroad in the past four years because no British buyer could be found, the committee said.
"Unless current policies are changed, the situation is likely to become more acute. The hope of many people, when the Heritage Lottery Fund was set up five years ago, that there need never again be a heritage crisis in Britain, has so far proved to be incorrect," the report said.
Yesterday the Tories issued a warning to Mr Smith that foreign dealers could soon move in to buy large quantities of British art unless more money was made available for its purchase. Peter Ainsworth, the spokesman for culture, said planned changes in tax rules would force owners of valuable artworks to open their homes to the public or sell their works, forcing a great number on to the market. If extra money was not found many of those would go abroad.
"I am concerned that there appears to be a growing number of works of art which are finding their way abroad. I am also appalled at the reduction of funds to this level. If the National Lottery isn't there to save important works for the nation, what is it there for?"
A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the Heritage Lottery Fund had supported the purchase of a number of important works recently, including George Stubbs' Whistlejacket, for which it contributed pounds 8.26m of the pounds 11m cost in 1997.
In a recent interview with Art Quarterly, Mr Smith said the funds had difficult decisions to make. "I don't think it would be right to say that they have withdrawn completely or that they have given up the ghost ... the trustees of the Heritage Lottery Fund have to strike a balance between competing things," Mr Smith said.
Ken Livingstone, Review, page 5
Nicolas Poussin's `The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem' - pounds 4,500,000
Dating from 1638, the two-metre by 1.5-metre painting was sold to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. No other British-owned Poussin of the same period had the same scale or complexity.
Rembrandt's `Portrait of an Elderly Man' - pounds 9,300,000
An informal portrait in oil, the painting went to the Netherlands despite great efforts to find a UK buyer.
Andrea del Verrocchio's `St John the Baptist' - pounds 1,612,903
This 25cm sculpture by Verrocchio, to whom Da Vinci was apprenticed, was sold this year to a US buyer.Reuse content