Millionaire's gift horse puts politics into museums world

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A defiant political gesture by an 86-year-old millionaire art collector could change for ever the way works of art are left to the nation.

The pounds 25m bequest by Sir Denis Mahon of 61 17th century Italian baroque pictures to institutions including the National Gallery and the Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam museums, in Oxford and Cambridge, will be withdrawn, before his death, he states, if the Government falls short in its commitment to public collections generally.

It will be removed from galleries after his death if any gallery involved sells off any of its works of art.

Until now private collectors have left pictures in their wills to their favourite galleries with no motives other than enriching the national heritage and possibly helping their descendants by declaring the paintings against inheritance tax.

Sir Denis, long a campaigner for the arts, and a bachelor, has also intimated, though it is not in the legal agreement he has with the National Art Collections Fund, that he would not want any of his pictures in a gallery or museum that charges the public for admission.

The latter has never been higher on the agenda than now following cuts announced last week in government grant to museums and galleries.

Sir Denis, independently wealthy as a member of the Guinness Mahon banking family, is well placed to hold governments to ransom. If a government reduces funding too much he will, as it were, from the grave reduce the number of paintings he has bequeathed to the nation. For that purpose he has again gone against convention and ensured that legal control of the bequest stays with the National Art Collections Fund, the leading independent art charity, rather than the museums and galleries involved.

As Sir Denis threatened at a press conference at the National Gallery yesterday with a phrase that will resound through the art world and the Department of National Heritage for years to come: "In the last analysis a cut on one side could be matched by a cut on the other."

The new era of the politically charged bequest was welcomed by Mark Fisher, Labour's arts spokesman. "I'm very sympathetic," he said. "The spirit of all the major historic bequests has been of benefiting the public. Sir Denis is continuing that tradition. He wants to leave his collection to the public and to ensure that museums remain truly public."

The National Gallery's director, Neil MacGregor, added: "What is interesting is that here is a man with a very clear view of how museums should relate to the public, and I applaud it."

Others were uneasy. Tim Mason, director of the Museums and Galleries Commission, said "Bequests have often come with conditions, but they are straightforward conditions concerning things like security, the environment in which paintings are displayed and access. Such things are easily measured. The difficulty here is interpretation. How does one measure whether the Government is falling short of its commitments?"

Other senior museum figures said that a less important collection would be unlikely to be accepted on such terms.

The Government will also be watching to see whether Sir Denis really is holding a gun to its head or whether he is bluffing. The first signs are that Sir Denis's conditions may be as much political gesture as legal threat.

Yesterday he admitted that in last week's Budget the Government had indeed, through its cut to museums and galleries, fallen short on its commitments. But he said that although the Government had failed on this key condition, he would not be withdrawing his bequest yet.

"I shall just wait to see what Mrs Bottomley [Secretary of State for National Heritage] says for herself," he said. We will have to see whether the Government behaves in a civilised manner or not. I think they should have a chance to see what there is to lose."

The Irish National Gallery has been promised five of the paintings in the bequest.

Raymond Keaveney, director of the Irish National Gallery, confirmed that more of the Mahon bequest may cross the Irish Sea if admission charges are levied at a British gallery to benefit. No Dublin public gallery or museum charges for entry.