Public loses out as private buyers outbid museums for UK artworks

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The Independent Online

A medieval bronze jug and two paintings of London by the renowned Venetian painter Canaletto were among £8.3m worth of treasures saved for Britain by the use of a temporary export ban which gives museums the chance to bid for them.

But efforts to find £7.3m to save eight other items, including a cabinet from the era of George II, and several Italian masterpieces, failed, according to a yearly report by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.

The figures are an improvement on the previous year, when nine objects worth £5.6m were saved from a total of 25 objects worth £46.4m. However, the amount of money museums and galleries were able to raise in the year to April was comparatively small. It was the millionaire philanthropist, Sir Peter Moores, who paid £6m to buy the Canaletto works for the public gallery he established at Compton Verney, Warwickshire.

David Barrie, director of The Art Fund charity, which helps museums and galleries buy important works, said: "Although the figures look like they've improved on last year, when only 12 per cent by value were saved from export, most of the improvement is accounted for by one private individual who sees the point of putting beautiful paintings on display for public benefit. In fact, the money our museums were able to find was just £2.3m. As Art Fund research showed only last month, the situation is now so dire that our national museums can no longer compete."

For more than 50 years, the Government has operated a system where experts can recommend a temporary export ban on treasures deemed to be important pieces of British cultural heritage. That gives museums and galleries a chance to raise money to match the price whereupon most owners agree to sell.

But there have been criticisms, not least because treasures often cost more than if museums and galleries had the funds to negotiate at an earlier stage.

The Tate is currently trying to raise £4.95m to save The Blue Rigi, one of Turner's greatest watercolours, from export. It had a £2m estimate but sold for £5.83m at Christie's this year.

The items acquired under the system in the past year were: an Anglo-Saxon gold coin of King Coenwulf of Mercia, purchased by the British Museum for £357,832; seven Viking silver pieces (Ulster Museum, £1,000); a medieval bronze jug (Luton Museums Service, £750,000); the Codex Stosch, an Italian sketchbook (British Architectural Library, £274,418); a silver cup and cover presented by the people of Suffolk to the naval hero Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke (Ipswich Borough Council Museums Service, £84,000); a medieval bronze equestrian knight (Bassetlaw Museum, Nottinghamshire, £34,000); a Roman millefiori disc (Oxfordshire Museums Service, £2,260); a portrait of Louis XVI by Antoine-Francois Callet, purchased by a family philanthropic trust for £775,000 and lent to Waddesdon Manor; and the works by Canaletto, View of the Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, and The Interior Of The The Rotunda, Ranelagh.

Among those items that were lost were paintings by Naddo Ceccarelli, Pietro Francesco degli Orioli and Luca Carlevaris, and a silver trophy that was presented to Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke for capturing the USS Chesapeake during the Anglo-American war of 1812-1814.

Mark Wood, chairman of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which administers the scheme, paid tribute to the committee, that is chaired by Lord Inglewood, for its work on protecting Britain's heritage. "This scheme plays an essential role in keeping this rich mosaic intact for future generations," he said.

David Lammy, the Culture minister, said it was important there was an opportunity for vital pieces of cultural heritage to be saved. "These saved items are made available for the public to enjoy, learn from, and act as a source of inspiration," he said.


* A pair of paintings by Canaletto entitled View of the Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, and The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, showed rival pleasure gardens central to life in London in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were purchased for the Compton Verney gallery, Warwickshire, by its founder and benefactor, the Littlewoods pools heir, Sir Peter Moores

* The Wenlock Jug, an English royal medieval jug, was bought by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but Luton Museums Service campaigned to find £750,000 for a rival bid for the piece, which had strong local connections

* This rare Anglo-Saxon coin of Coenwulf, the King of Mercia, was unearthed by a treasure hunter near Bedford in 2001 and is important for an insight into ninth century kingship. The British Museum paid £357,832, a record figure for a coin


* A George II Gothic painted cabinet, thought to be by the cabinet maker William Hallett, was lost in the sale of the Easton Neston country house estate, Northamptonshire. Price: £1.2m, excluding VAT

* Madonna and Child, painted by Naddo Ceccarelli as a private luxury object in Sienna in the 14th century, is regarded as of fundamental importance in the attribution of other paintings by the artist. Price: £1.3m, excluding VAT.