Multi-million pound battle to regain masterpiece

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A saleroom battle is looming for a unique 18th-century cabinet, the purchase of which by an American collector in 1990 was regarded as a grave loss to the nation.

A saleroom battle is looming for a unique 18th-century cabinet, the purchase of which by an American collector in 1990 was regarded as a grave loss to the nation.

The Badminton Cabinet, which last sold for a world-record £8.6m, is arguably the most important work of decorative arts to have been commissioned by a British patron in three centuries. It is to be sold by Christie's, London, in December, an event that will resurrect arguments about British heritage being lost to the nation.

By coincidence, the National Art Collections Fund, which led the campaign to save the Badminton Cabinet last time, yesterday launched a campaign to stop a medieval illuminated manuscript, the Macclesfield Psalter, from being lost overseas. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which was part of the bid for the cabinet in 1990, said that it would not bid again - not least because it is desperate to acquire the psalter, which will otherwise go to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Badminton Cabinet was commissioned by the 19-year-old Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort, in Florence in 1726. Thirty craftsmen are thought to have been involved in producing the cabinet, made of ebony and decorated with lapis lazuli, agate, red and green jasper and amethyst quartz.

It was held at the family home, Badminton House, in Gloucestershire, until its sale in 1990. The buyer was Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born art historian who married into the American healthcare company Johnson&Johnson. She says she no longer has the space to display it.

When the campaign to raise enough money to match Mrs Johnson's bid failed 14 years ago, the National Art Collections Fund called for a national lottery to provide cash for art purchases - which was created. But yesterday, David Barrie, the director of the Art Fund, attacked the Heritage Lottery Fund for making increasingly baffling decisions on which causes to support. Mr Barrie said it was "inexplicable" that the HLF had refused a grant for the Macclesfield Psalter. The Art Fund pledged £500,000 towards matching the £1.7m paid by the Getty Museum.

The Heritage Lottery Fund said it had refused the application because the psalter "failed to meet two of our key requirements for access and education".

Mark Jones, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, said it would be wonderful if the Badminton Cabinet returned to Britain. "Since public funding is unlikely to be available, this will only happen if an individual makes this happen," he said.

Comments