Export Restrictions, The Waverley Criteria and Eakins’ "The Gross Clinic"

A recently attributed work by English landscape painter John Constable has been temporarily denied export under the UK’s Waverley Criteria. The work, “Flatford Lock from the Mill House” (~1814) which was only attributed to Constable in 2004, has been sold to a foreign buyer, whose identity is unknown. The UK has a limited export restriction scheme, which temporarily halts the export of a work if it falls under one of the three Waverley Criteria:

  1. Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
  2. Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  3. Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If a work can fall under any one of these three categories, export will be temporarily restricted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) so a UK buyer can raise enough money to keep the work in the UK. The export license for this work may be delayed until 11, May 2007. I am not sure who owns the work, or if it is even publicly displayed. It was part of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery from June – August of this year. The restriction begs the question though, if the work is not generally on display to the public, do UK residents get some kind of inherent benefit out of having the work in private hands?

Such is not the argument over the recent decision by Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia to sell Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” (1875) for $68 million, pictured below. Of its own volition, the University has decided to delay the sale so that Philadelphia can attempt to raise enough money to keep the work in the area. For information on the fund-raising attempts, see Stephan Salisbury’s piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Donn Zaretsky’s Art Law Blog has a good analysis of the decision to sell here.

At the heart of both of these decisions, lies a question which often plagues cultural property. Do very beautiful and valuable works have a single true home, or should they be displayed anywhere? These works engender civic and national pride, and a city or nation is loathe to give them up without a fight. However, at least with respect to the Waverly Criteria, the UK’s position seems quite contradictory. How much of the British museum would have been left in its source nation if Waverley Criteria had been applied? The answer is not much. However, there is a good argument to be made that the Museum is taking good care of these objects, and millions of visitors get to view and experience them. There are not any easy answers to this question. Ultimately, though we may criticize the decision of Thomas Jefferson University to sell the work, it went about the sale in a responsible manner, in such a way that allows concerned parties to raise funds for the work to stay in Philadelphia.

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

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