When the "saved" stickers were slapped on the appeal posters for Raphael's paintingThe Madonna of the Pinks earlier this year, it was a triumph for the National Gallery's director, Charles Saumarez Smith. He had campaigned hard to raise the £22m needed to prevent the tiny painting leaving Britain where it has belonged to the Dukes of Northumberland for more than 150 years.
It crowns the roll-call of an astonishingly diverse collection of art and artefacts that have been saved for the nation in the past 12 months thanks to vigorous campaigns, frantic fundraising and, in the latest case announced yesterday, the generosity of owners who went out of their way to keep a work in the UK.
Much of this art could easily have gone abroad. Indeed, some of it was only stopped from going overseas by temporary export bans that provided a crucial few months for museums and galleries to raise the money to match the sale price. (Most buyers, faced with not being able to export their new possessions, sell them on.)
It was frequently charitable grants from the National Art Collections Fund (the Art Fund), not public money, which clinched the deals. Items saved by export bans this year include an £805,000 painting of the Holy family by the Italian painter, Annibale Carracci, and a masterpiece by Richard Parkes Bonington, an influential 19th-century British artist who died at the age of 25.
Yet there were also losses. The Victoria and Albert Museum was desperate to secure a fabulous bejewelled flask which once belonged to Clive of India and which it had exhibited on loan since 1963. But it was bought by a sheikh for his museum of Islamic art in Qatar. When the Government temporarily blocked export to allow the V&A time to match the £3m he paid, he withdrew his export licence application, forcing the museum to abandon its rescue.
The fate of another item, a precious medieval manuscript, the Macclesfield Psalter, hangs in the balance, with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge desperately trying to raise the final £70,000 of £1.7m needed to prevent it going to the Getty Museum in America.
Yet David Barrie, director of the Art Fund, said there were few important works that had come up for sale that had been lost this year. "The problem is not so much that there are many failed attempts to save things but that people aren't making attempts because they're pretty sure they won't succeed," he said. "You get to the point where very many museums and galleries are self-limiting because they know that the funding is so restricted that their chances of success are very slight."
So, for instance, when the Badminton Cabinet, a great Florentine work of art, came back on the market this autumn 14 years after a national battle to save it, no institution even considered a bid. It eventually went for a new world record price of £19m, a sum that would probably have been impossible to raise.
The problems faced by the heads of Britain's museums and galleries are enormous. The Government provides institutions with no dedicated budget for acquisitions these days, leaving them struggling to ring-fence anything from their general budgets.
Museums can apply for grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but that is not dedicated solely to artworks. It faces enormous demands from a wide range of heritage organisations and is itself living in fear of having its lottery revenue cut to help pay for the Olympics or other government priorities.
All that comes when the price of Old Masters, for instance, has gone up more than 20 per cent in the past five years compared with a retail price index rise of about 5 per cent.
Dr Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Gallery, said saving The Madonna of the Pinks had obviously been a great success for them, but it exhausted the museum's available capital funding. "And almost certainly it would be impossible to mount a comparable public appeal at least in the foreseeable future," he said.
"If another work of art of comparable significance appears on the market in the next five years or one of the major owners of works in this country decides to sell, we will be in very severe difficulties. Any collection like the National Gallery's needs to grow and develop. It's not a static thing".
Sometimes artists are not recognised as significant during their lifetime. Sometimes the importance of a particular movement in art can be seen only with hindsight.
The gallery has been looking at a work by August Strindberg, who is known today as a writer but was also a prolific painter. "It's the sort of thing that would not have been collected 50 or 100 years ago, but now is seen to be of great interest, particularly because his works are antecedents of Abstract Expressionism," Dr Saumarez Smith said. "But we can't afford it."
In a speech just over a year ago, Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, observed that acquisition choices were being skewed by the process of last-ditch efforts to save works for the nation.
But Dr Saumarez Smith said it was only when there was an export stop placed on an item that most museums had the time to raise the money. This made the system a necessary evil in the current climate.
The ideal solution would be for more money to be available to enable negotiations with the owners of important works to take place before they go to auction. As matters stand, an item being sold at auction would be announced perhaps six weeks in advance yet a grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, for instance, requires a minimum of two months.
The only other public fund available is the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which is regarded as the fund of last resort, but that currently gets only £5m a year from the Government - about the same amount as the Art Fund charity has to give.
There is also the need to save smaller items of heritage. David Barrie said they were constantly confronted with pleas for help both from the bigger national institutions wanting to buy world-class objects as well as local museums and galleries seeking items of considerable local significance.
"With the smaller acquisitions, the prices tend to be much lower and it's easier for us to make a big difference. We'll probably succeed in saving the Macclesfield Psalter, but with things costing £5m, £10m or £20m it's exceedingly difficult."
He, like many others, believes other strategies are needed to keep important items in the UK and on public display.
In January this year, Sir Nicholas Goodison, a former chairman of both the Stock Exchange and the Art Fund, prepared a report at the Treasury's request which advocated measures such as tax incentives for people who wished to give important art to the nation. The Treasury appears to have quietly shelved its findings amid whispers that it viewed the proposals as "cash for toffs".
But David Barrie said it was evident that encouraging more gifts of art, as happens in America, was one potential way of easing the acquisitions crisis. "If we really want to encourage people to give more generously than we need to give them more incentives to do so," Mr Barrie said. "But it's difficult to get the Treasury to accept."
Museums are otherwise dependent on goodwill. A painting by the Dutch master, Cornelis Engelsz,The Supper at Emmaus has just been purchased by Norwich Castle thanks to the patience of its owners who waited for the money to be raised.
There is another problem. The present systems only save works with strong British connections, so there is no public money to save the best international art. Tate curators are already acutely conscious that the gallery did not buy Picassos and Matisses in the earlier part of the 20th century and certainly cannot afford to do so now. Today, the best of contemporary international art is also beyond its means.
"The danger is that in 100 years' time, observers will be saying, 'What were they doing? Where are the great works by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and other international figures?'" Mr Barrie said. "And the truth is we don't have enough money to buy them."
SIX OTHER ARTWORKS SAVED FOR THE NATION
Portrait of Sir Basil Dixwell, c1683, by Sir Anthony van Dyck
Sir Basil Dixwell was a Kent landowner and MP. When this painting came on to the market, the Royal Museum and Art Gallery in Canterbury was eager to buy it. The National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund helped pay the £950,000 bill.
'The Supper at Emmaus', 1612, by Cornelis Engelsz
Until 50 years ago, this was misattributed to its original owner, the East Anglian amateur painter Nathaniel Bacon, whose work was influenced by Engelsz. When his descendants decided to sell, they waited for Norwich Castle Gallery to raise the price of £202,500 as they wanted it to stay in Norfolk.
'Storr Rock, Lady's Cove', 1897, by Alfred Sisley
Sisley is the only major Impressionist artist to have worked in Wales (in summer 1897). When this painting came up for auction, the National Museum and Gallery of Wales was keen to make it the second Sisley in its collection. Nearly a third of the £326,200 price came from the Art Fund.
Last missing leaf of the 'Sforza Hours' manuscript, c1490
The leaf was stolen five centuries ago from the great illuminated Sforza Hours - a treasure today of the British Library. It was offered to the BL this year by an American dealer who gave it just two months to raise £191,000.
Figure of Buddha Sakyamuni, 6th-7th century
Few Buddha images of this important period in Buddhist art have survived. This was one of three bronze Buddhas which appeared on the Western market in the 1960s. The British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum jointly raised £850,000 to secure it for Britain.
'Shipwreck in Stormy Seas', 1772, by Claude-Joseph Vernet
This and a sister seascape will come to the National Gallery after the death of an American who bought them for £2.4m in London last year. By the terms of a complex deal, David H Koch keeps them for his lifetime, then they pass to the gallery.Reuse content