Aristocrats put Old Masters up for auction

Paintings that were on public display are being sold and taken abroad as Britain's titled families offload their treasures

Andrew Johnson
Sunday 05 December 2010 01:00

Britain's art establishment is becoming increasingly concerned at the number of Old Master paintings that, after being on display in public galleries for years, are now being sold and taken abroad.

On Tuesday Christie's will sell one of the greatest Old Master works to come up for auction for 25 years – Nicolas Poussin's Ordination. It is one of a series of seven works known as The Sacraments that have belonged to the Duke of Rutland's family since 1785. There are five paintings from the series left in the collection and until last July they were on show at the National Gallery in London.

The Duke was intending to sell all five paintings in 2007 but withdrew them for "family reasons", adding that they wouldn't be put up for sale "for the foreseeable future". At the time the National Gallery had begun a campaign to raise £50m to save them. Since then it has committed to raising £100m to buy two Titians on display at the National Galleries of Scotland.

Next week's sale places the Duke of Rutland among a growing body of British aristocrats offloading their family treasures to raise funds for repairs to their estates or to meet demands from Revenue & Customs.

Earlier this year the Earl of Spencer sold £21m-worth of art from Althorp House, and other sales have come from the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth House. "Because of the times we live in, when there's a divorce or repairs are needed the pictures are the first to go," said one of Britain's most powerful art insiders.

The Art Fund – the charity that helps museums to buy works – is locked in a fundraising campaign to raise £2.7m to buy Pieter Brueghel the Younger's The Procession to Calvary.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport acknowledges that in the current climate there is unlikely to be any public funds to save these works – especially with the commitment to buying the Titians.

Andrew Macdonald, deputy director of the Art Fund, added: "What's really needed are tax incentives that better encourage philanthropic giving and so limit the number of works that end up at auction."

A spokeswoman for the National Galleries of Scotland said that despite the "worrying trend" of works being sold, "there is every reason to be optimistic that we can still continue to add great works to our public collections".

Brood Mares and Foals by George Stubbs, 1768

Owned by the Earls of Macclesfield since 1768. For sale next week at Sotheby's for £10-£15m. The highlight of Sotheby's sale is considered one of Stubbs's greatest works. It has not been exhibited or sold before.

Ordination by Nicolas Poussin, 1630s

Owned by the Dukes of Rutland since 1784. Loaned to the National Gallery 2002-10, previously on display at the Duke's family seat, Belvoir Castle. The work is expected sell for £15-£20m and is likely to go to a foreign buyer.

Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino by J M W Turner, 1839

Sold by the Earl of Rosebery in July for £29.7m to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Loaned to the National Galleries of Scotland since 1978. Described as the English painter's final masterpiece, the Turner will at least be going to a public gallery.

The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1602

Owned by Lord St Oswald's family for 200 years. On display at Nostell Priory near Wakefield in West Yorkshire since 1954. For sale for £2.7m. The National Trust has owned the priory since 1954, but the current Lord St Oswald still owns the painting which is the star attraction. He has given the trust first refusal.

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