Inflation in the art market will soon push the cost of masterpieces to £100m and put them beyond the reach of British galleries, the head of an art charity said yesterday.
David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund (the Art Fund), said the scarcity of Old Masters available for purchase and the demands of wealthy collectors were threatening to price public institutions out of the market.
"We're faced with the problem that the greatest Old Master paintings are going to be so hotly pursued by billionaire private collectors that prices are soon going to move into nine figures."
He added: "At that level, even institutions as well funded as the Getty will be stretched to compete. The prices will be bid up to a truly astronomical level."
The "poverty of government funding" already meant that thousands of workshad been saved for the nation only through the intervention of the Art Fund, which distributes more than £5m a year, raised through members' subscriptions.
Mr Barrie said: "Museums and galleries have at the heart of their mission the display of the greatest achievements of human creativity. It's not enough for their collections to remain static, they need to be able to refresh them.
"It would be heartbreaking if institutions in this country were prevented from doing this because government funding ceased to be adequate. We're on the brink of that."
Mr Barrie was speaking at the launch of Saved!, an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London of 400 out of 500,000 works funded or partly supported by the fund during its 100-year history.
The exhibition, which opens on Thursday and runs until 18 January, is sponsored by JP Morgan with The Independent and Classic FM as media partners. The items saved with the help of the Art Fund range from Peruvian pottery to Chinese scrolls and Bronze Age swords as well as works by Canaletto, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, modern photography by Cindy Sherman and sculpture by Rachel Whiteread.
The show includes treasures such as a Michelangelo study of Adam, made for the vault of the Sistine Chapel, which was bought for the British Museum in 1926 for £600 and is now worth about £15m.
The Art Fund was established in 1903 by art lovers concerned at a crisis in national collecting as landed aristocrats, faced with high taxes and an agricultural depression, began selling their prized works to America and Europe, notably Germany.
Richard Verdi, the director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham and the exhibition's curator, praised the Art Fund as a "miracle" for stopping works of art from being sold abroad where many people could not afford to see them.
"Without its tremendous energy, input and charity, many of these works would indeed have for ever left these shores. The Art Fund has unswervingly served the nation's collections and institutions in the face of undiminished government philistinism."
Few of the national galleries and museums now have a ring-fenced sum of money for acquisitions. The funds that do exist can be tiny. For example, the British Museum's budget is about £100,000 a year.
The only government pot for acquisitions is the National Heritage Memorial Fund, established in memory of the dead of the two world wars. It used to receive £12m a year but now gets £5m - about the same as the Art Fund distributes.
COULD WE AFFORD THEM NOW?
'The Crucifixion' by Duccio di Buoninsegna.
Bought by the Manchester City Galleries for £1,798,000 in 1985, equivalent to £3,349,000 in 2002. Art Fund grant: £500,000.
Estimated value today: Not less than £6m-8m
'The Rokeby Venus' by Diego Velazquez.
Bought entirely by the Art Fund for £45,000 for the National Gallery in 1906, equivalent to £3,128,000 in 2002.
Estimated value today: £70m
Studies of a reclining male nude: Adam in the fresco 'The Creation of Man' on the vault of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
Bought by the British Museum for £600 in 1926, equivalent to £21,800 in 2002. Art Fund grant: £400.
Estimated value today: £15m
'Belshazzar's Feast' by Rembrandt.
Bought by the National Gallery for £170,000 in 1964, equivalent to £2,118,000 in 2002. Art Fund grant: £10,000.
Estimated value today: not less than £40mReuse content