Graces and few favours: The taxpayer may pay millions to keep a sculpture but who gets the money, asks Geraldine Norman

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The Independent Online
NEVER has a battle to retain an art treasure in this country been so consistently mishandled as the case of Canova's marble statue of The Three Graces. It is characteristic of the saga that, at the very moment when Paul Getty Jnr's generous offer of pounds 1m towards the pounds 7.6m purchase price seemed finally to have assured victory to the heritage lobby, the heritage's most doubty champion, Tim Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, should have put his foot in it on television.

Clifford is a scholar with a broad range of expertise in the fine and decorative arts and has fought singlemindedly to upgrade collections in all his museum posts - at the V & A, the British Museum, Manchester and Edinburgh. His nickname in the art world is 'Tiger Tim', after the comic strip character in Rainbow - bouncy, lovable and constantly in scrapes. It was he who thought of approaching Getty in the first place, but an unthinking remark about the recluse art patron's bad relations with his father, live on BBC television, led Getty to withdraw his offer. After 48 hours of agonised apologies, Getty magnanimously agreed to overlook Clifford's faux pas.

It would be nice to believe that that was the last banana skin the three voluptuous, naked goddesses would slip on before their successful acquisition for the nation. However, there is still one uncomfortable issue outstanding. Who, exactly, is going to get the money when the sculpture is paid for?

Some time between 1985 and 1989 the Marquess of Tavistock sold it for a reputed pounds 1.25m to Fine Art Investment and Display Ltd of the Cayman Islands - his ancestor, the 6th Duke of Bedford, had commissioned the sculpture from Canova in 1814. Fine Art Investment and Display is represented in Geneva by a lawyer called Luc Hafner and in London by the well- known solicitors Allen & Overy - but nothing else is known about it. There has been speculation that it was devised by Allen & Overy as an arms-length vehicle through which the Tavistocks could share in the profit on the resale of the sculpture in a tax efficient manner. Allen & Overy also arranged the Marquess of Northampton's offshore investment in the pounds 40m Sevso hoard of Roman silver - whose ownership is still being disputed in the American courts.

Since Fine Art Investment and Display applied for an export licence last December in order to sell the sculpture to the J Paul Getty Museum of Malibu, California - founded by Paul Getty Jnr's father - the V & A has been attempting to raise pounds 7.6m to match the export price. If the money is found, the Heritage Minister will have the right to deny The Three Graces an export licence. Three weeks ago, when it looked as if the V & A were not going to succeed by the 5 August deadline, Clifford suggested that the National Galleries of Scotland help with fund raising and the two museums buy the sculpture in partnership. Both have now pledged pounds 1.1m out of their purchase grants and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, a quango financed by the Treasury, has promised pounds 3m. That makes pounds 5.5m of taxpayers' money. With so much public money at stake the nation has a right to know exactly where it's going.

The Tavistocks have certainly been treated abominably by successive governments. It all began in 1979, when they wanted to cede the sculpture to the nation in lieu of tax. The deal nearly came off - a valuation of pounds 1.2m was agreed but the government insisted that it would only accept the sculpture if the Tavistocks restored it to the special temple in the Woburn Abbey sculpture gallery which the architect Sir Jeffrey Wyatville had built for it in 1819. Since the Tavistocks had converted the gallery into a banqueting hall, they were unable to comply.

With hindsight, it seems madness to have imposed such a condition. While the desirability of keeping The Three Graces in Britain has recently been questioned in the press, the museum community has never been in any doubt over its status as a pre-eminent masterpiece.

Canova was the greatest of all Neo-Classical sculptors and The Three Graces was one of his most important works. Neo-Classicism, which is now rather out of fashion, dominated Europe from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century.

Moreover, the sculpture does have a historic link with Britain. The 6th Duke of Bedford saw Canova working on the first version of The Three Graces - now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg - when he was in Rome in 1814. It had been commissioned by the Empress Josephine and the Duke was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he commissioned a second version for Woburn.

The trouble really started six years after their first abortive attempt to dispose of the sculpture. The Tavistocks lent it to the 'Treasure Houses of Britain' exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington, in 1985. The exhibition alerted American museums to the sculpture's existence and, in 1989, the Getty entered into its first contract with Fine Art Investment and Display to buy the sculpture for pounds 7.6m, subject to the availability of an export licence.

In June 1989 the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art recommended a six month delay in issuing a licence in order to give British museums a chance to match the price. Then Bedford County Coucil raised the question of whether the sculpture was in law a 'fixture' of a listed building. In a Commons statement in November 1989, the Environment Minister, Christopher Patten, announced that The Three Graces was, indeed, a listed fixture of Woburn but he didn't intend to enforce the law in this case.

A ginger group, called Save Britain's Heritage, was so incensed by his attitude that it decided to challenge him in the courts and initiated a judicial review. Meanwhile, the six-month export stop had run out and been extended, but no money had been found. Nicholas Ridley, then Trade and Industry Secretary, decided to tackle the problem by changing the rules on export stops. Up to that time, an export licence could only be denied if a British gallery or museum was prepared to match the export price; Ridley now announced that export licences could be denied if anyone in Britain was prepared to match the price. Two reclusive Scottish millionaires, David and Frederick Barclay, offered to buy the sculpture and Ridley duly refused to issue a licence.

In the event, this deal didn't go through. Fine Art Investment and Display demanded interest payments to compensate for the delay in completion and the Barclay brothers refused to pay. Meanwhile, the review of whether The Three Graces was a saleable 'chattel' or a 'fixture' rumbled on and in February 1991 Michael Heseltine, who had taken over as Environment Secretary, announced that it was a 'chattel' after all. Fine Art Investment and Display was left with the sculpture on its hands but no export licence and no buyer.

Last year, the Getty Museum renewed its offer to purchase the sculpture for pounds 7.6m, subject to an export licence being obtained. It was applied for in December and on 5 February Peter Brooke announced a six-month delay to allow British institutions to try to match the price.

By the end of July, with only five days to go to the 5 August deadline, the V & A had teased a promise of pounds 3m out of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, pounds 500,000 out of the National Art Collections Fund and some pounds 80,000 from other sources - but they were still pounds 2.9m short.

It was at this point that Clifford rode into the lists, starting with an offer of pounds 1.1m if the V & A would share ownership with the National Galleries of Scotland. His involvement was enough to convince the new Heritage Minister, Stephen Dorrell, that it was worth giving the two museums a three month extension to try to raise the price - they have until 5 November. Clifford went on to approach Paul Getty Jnr who had helped him in the past with campaigns to keep a Duccio and a Mantegna in Britain - one succeeded, the other failed. The pounds 1m that Getty has promised makes it almost certain that the last pounds 800,000 will be raised in time.

Meanwhile, both Fine Art Investment and Display and the Getty Museum are threatening to seek a judicial review of the legality of the Government's export delays - though no writ has yet been served. One advantage of a court case would be that taxpayers would have the opportunity to learn more about the destination of pounds 5.5m of their money.

(Photograph omitted)