News and Features

The Kimbell Art Museum Vs. Great Britain, Score: 2-0

RuisdaeleditCast your mind back to the weekend and the announcement that Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum had, once again, bought a significant, Old Master oil painting: Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscape from the 1650s, Edge of a Forest with a Grainfield. Huzzahs all around: North Texas now has, arguably, the best Dutch landscape in America, and the Kimbell has something to go with its Ruisdael seascape.

But the response by the local media (Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KERA’s Art & Seek) was rather different from that of the London Sunday Times. Their headline pretty much sums it up: “UK loses art gem for sake of college digs.” Oxford’s Worcester College, which had owned the large-scale painting since 1811, had sold it, the Times reports, because “it felt it had no alternative way of paying off loans for the construction of more than 120 new and refurbished rooms for its students.” (Worcester might have started charging visitors to paddle on its famous lake — it’s the only Oxford college equipped with such a water feature — but that probably would have taken too long.)

In any event, Times arts editor Richard Brooks’ aggrieved account doesn’t object so much to the new dorms as the loss of British heritage and the apparent lack of government oversight over cultural exports.

The sale was not referred to the government’s export review committee after an interdependent assessor working for the Arts Council, the initial port of call for any artwork that might go overseas, decided it was not worth a referral.

“I’m really, really amazed about that,’ said Johnny Van Haeften, the leading art dealer for Dutch works in London. He pointed out that any work has to meet only one of three criteria for the government’s committee to consider an export stop.

“The first is whether the work is part of the national heritage. This painting must be, since it’s been here for 200 years. And the second is whether it is of aesthetic important, Of course it is,” said Van Haeften, who sat on the export review committee for 10 years.

The sale was not at auction, but a private one, albeit handled by Christie’s, the London auction house. These kinds of private sales, as Artinfo has reported, are increasingly common with the large auction houses acting more as agents and private galleries.

Poussin cutAll this may sound a little familiar. In September 2011, you may recall, there were similar hurt feelings when the Kimbell bought The Sacrament of Ordination by the 17th century French master, Nicolas Poussin (above).

In that case, the sale was also a private one, but by an individual not an institution. In 2007, the Duke of Rutland had tried to sell the remaining five paintings from Poussin’s entire set of Seven Sacraments for around $163 million, but a public outcry made him take back the offer. Then, in 2009, when the Duke of Sutherland announced he wanted to sell his two great Titians, the British government sought to buy at least one of them to keep it in-country. While all that was going on, the Kimbell finished secret negotiations to buy just the Ordination from the Duke of Rutland for $24.3 million. That’s almost small change, when you consider that Jackson Pollock and Jasper John paintings have sold for more than four or five times that figure.

The following year, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge made a public appeal for funds to acquire (and thus, keep in England) Extreme Unction from the Duke of Rutland’s remaining Poussin set. In this case, the museum was successful but only because of a complicated tax deal that the government had arranged — in direct response to the Kimbell’s earlier purchase of Poussin’s Ordination.

In short, the British government — and to some degree, the British public — have been trying to retain artworks they feel are their patrimony, the works belong to them, to their history, even when, in fact, they belong to private individuals or particular institutions and not the public per se.  (Interesting side note: It’s not just the physical heritage that’s exiting the sceptered isle; it’s the art people, too. London has been experiencing an accelerating, curatorial brain drain.)

For comparison’s sake: Does the United States have anything similar to an ‘export review committee’ that oversees and could even potentially halt the foreign acquisition of American cultural products? I suspect, any such reviews are strictly on an ad hoc, local and ineffectual level. Recall when, in 1989, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation bought Rockefeller Center, not just another office tower / retail center, but a significant historical and architectural landmark. Despite a nationwide outcry, there wasn’t a single city, state or federal organization that responded in any meaningful fashion even just to, you know, take a look at the paperwork and see if everything was kosher.

So Britain has been very aware of the international value of its cultural heritage (parts of which, of course, it accumulated through less than savory means, but it’s worth pointing out, not in these two instances). And that public awareness resides in official, protective mechanisms. In these two major acquisitions, the Kimbell has managed to work around and through this public and official resistance. I’m not saying there’s anything illegal or improper in what the museum has done (note the Times’ report that “an interdependent assessor working for the Arts Council” didn’t find anything wrong with the purchase, though it’s shocked by that decision). Given the extremely competitive, even cynical nature of the art market, the museum administration has displayed a traditional Texas talent for horsetrading, finding opportunities where others encounter only problems.

But it is the nature of the business: I bring this up to underscore what’s involved in such deals. It’s not simply an exchange of money and artworks changing hands between a single buyer and a single seller. It involves governments and history, societies and culture – and long-term economic tides. Our oil money continues to help America shift value over here — for now. And all of this is only heightened when the limited supply of Old Masters makes it, very nakedly, a zero sum game: Our gain is generally someone else’s loss, even when millions of dollars are on hand to soothe that loss.

Hence the headline score: 2 – 0.