Court ruling likely to end battle for statue: 'Three Graces' set to stay in UK

A FIVE-YEAR campaign to keep Antonio Canova's The Three Graces in Britain yesterday appeared to have succeeded after a High Court judge rejected a last-minute attempt by the J Paul Getty Trust to secure the statue for its museum in California.

Mr Justice Laws ruled that Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, had not acted unfairly when he decided in August to defer the granting of an export licence by three months, giving the Victoria and Albert Museum, assisted by the National Gallery of Scotland, more time to raise the required pounds 7.6m.

That figure was finally reached earlier this month when Baron Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza donated pounds 800,000, seemingly thwarting the offshore company that bought it from the Marquess of Tavistock in 1984 for pounds 1.25m, and which planned to sell it to the trust for pounds 7.6m.

The court action delayed the celebrations, but although the trust plans to appeal, this judgment almost certainly means that the statue will now be exhibited in Edinburgh and London.

In a further setback for the trust, the judge also ruled that the payment of pounds 3m by the National Heritage Memorial Fund to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the loan of pounds 600,000 to the National Gallery of Scotland, were not in breach of EU rules. 'It is beyond argument that neither the Victoria and Albert nor the National Gallery of Scotland is a commercial undertaking under the terms of the Treaty.'

Awarding costs against the trust, the judge rejected its claim that Mr Dorrell had said the first deferral of six months was a final one. He said: 'The case is that the Secretary of State (Mr Dorrell's predecessor, Peter Brooke) assured the applicants in February that the six- month deferral would be final. The respondents deny there was any such promise and I am inclined to think that is right.'

He said Mr Dorrell was entitled to give great weight to the cultural importance of the statue and was reasonable in concluding that a British offer was at that time within striking distance of the trust.

The art world is now speculating on the identity of the people behind Fine Art Display and Investment, the company that will receive the pounds 7.6m.

Registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven, the company is believed to have been set up solely for the Three Graces transaction. The firm is represented by a Swiss lawyer, Luc Hafner, who will not disclose his client's name.