Storm brews over Louvre's €13m loan deal with US

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The Independent Online

A ground-breaking cultural exchange, intended to sweeten relations between France and the US, has provoked claims that the Louvre is "hiring out" some of its greatest masterpieces.

The Paris museum will be paid €13m (£9m) over three years to send 185 works, including paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt and Poussin, to the High museum in Atlanta, Georgia.

The unprecedented deal - loaning great works of art for a fee - has been portrayed in the US as a step towards healing the rift in Franco-American relations caused by the Iraq war in 2003. But the arrangement, kept largely quiet in France, threatens to cause an explosive row in the French art world. The French art critic and writer Didier Rykner has accused the Louvre of "globalising" nationally owned masterpieces for financial gain.

The Louvre admits it will be paid by American business sponsors to loan the works, including a Raphael portrait, Baldassare Castiglione, which has not left France in 300 years. But a Louvre spokesperson said €5.5m of the money will fund the three years of exhibitions in Atlanta. The rest will cover half the cost of renovating the Louvre's 18th-century art rooms.

Vincent Pomarède, head of the painting department at the Louvre, called the deal "an intelligent global partnership" which would increase interest in the French museum in the US and improve conditions for visitors in Paris.

He said the masterpieces would not leave the Louvre for the full 11 months of the first of three "Louvre Atlanta" shows, from October this year until September 2007. "We are not crazy," he said. "The Raphael will be going for only three months and the Poussin [Les Bergers d'Arcadie] for five months."

Although the deal has been treated with great secrecy by the Louvre, the High museum in Atlanta has been boasting it for months. Ten days ago, it announced the list of great works expected to cross the Atlantic. The Louvre planned a low-key announcement on 4 April, as part of a longer list of other, more standard US loans and borrowings.

Other paintings which will be loaned to the renovated and extended High museum include Saint Matthew and the Angel by Rembrandt, Le Jeune Mendiant by Murillo and Les Baigneuses by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Although it is standard practice for art galleries to lend each other works for special exhibitions, it is unprecedented for a national gallery such as the Louvre to "hire out" its masterpieces.

M. Rykner says on his website, latribunedelart. com, that the Louvre is, without proper debate, fragmenting a collection which belongs to the nation.

"These works don't belong to the Louvre's curators but to all French people," he says. "Provincial museums in France have enormous problems in securing works on loan from the Louvre. You can imagine what the response would be if one of them asked for Baldassare Castiglione."