Buy a brushstroke, "save" a Turner


This watercolor by JMW Turner, “Blue Rigi” was sold at a Christie’s auction in June, 2006 for £5.8 million. Here is an article from the Guardian, discussing the sale at auction, which set a record for the highest price ever paid for a British watercolor. The buyer’s identity is, of course, a complete mystery. The work has been deemed of Waverley quality, and thus export of the work has been temporarily delayed to allow British institutions to raise enough funds to keep the work. The arts minister, David Lammy placed a temporary restriction on the work until July 22, but that delay has been extended until March 20. That may not be the final date though, dates have been extended in the past to allow for money to be raised. The arts minister should be very wary of extending the date too long though, as the private purchaser may decide to challenge the legality of the whole scheme as a violation of human rights. The law authorizing the ban was actually an emergency provision passed in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, and was later adapted to allow UK institutions a chance to raise funds to buy the work. One consequence of this rather haphazard system is the reliance upon the ability of the interested parties to raise enough funds. That becomes increasingly difficult as the price for art increases. Also, if the seller of the work chooses, she can simply decide not to sell the work.

The only example I’m aware of the Waverley Criteria temporary export prohibition being challenged was in 1994 when the Getty tried to challenge repeated extensions to the ban on the export of the Three Graces which is currently jointly owned by the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland.

This also draws strong parallels to the recent successful efforts to prevent the Gross Clinic from leaving Philadelphia. At least that work was publicly displayed. This Turner is privately owned, and not displayed to the public. How has the cultural heritage of the UK been damaged if a seldom-shown work is sold to a different individual in another country? I think that “saving” this work is a bit of a misnomer, especially considering two slightly different Rigi’s exist, one displayed in Australia, and another in the US National Gallery. If nothing else, the campaign to purchase this work is really ingenious. One wonders why it took so long, but in the last few days the Art Fund has just initiated a really creative fund-raising project. One can choose to “buy a brushstroke” for as little as five pounds, and the website gradually shows how much of the work has been “saved”. I suppose the market will decide. If you think the cultural patrimony of the UK will be forever tarnished by allowing the work to be owned by a mysterious foreign individual, you can donate to the effort. So far, £25,214 has been raised. Hopefully the seller will not choose to keep the painting if the funds are raised.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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