Deaccessioning Museums United Kingdom

Art sale to plug pension deficit

Royal Geographical Society pins hope on mystery Australian buyer to solve £3.5m financial headache

The Royal Geographical Society argues Australia will provide a better home for Thomas Baines’s works. The artist recorded a British expedition there (1855-57), including meetings with Aborigines

The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) is selling paintings valued at £4.2m to plug a deficit in its pension scheme. The works, by the English artist Thomas Baines (1820-75), which record the early history of Australia, seem destined to go to the southern hemisphere, subject to the granting of an export licence.

This is the latest in a series of controversial disposals by UK institutions, this time from a collection awarded “Designated” status because of its national importance.

The RGS trustees have written to the society’s Fellows explaining that there is a deficit of nearly £2.5m in its staff pension scheme and it needs a further £1m to cover possible future liabilities. A sale from the Baines collection “whilst regrettable, and a one-off in these exceptional circumstances, has been our only viable option”, they wrote.

Baines travelled as an artist on the British 1855-57 expedition to northern Australia. Led by Augustus Gregory, the party trekked from the mouth of the Victoria River eastwards to Brisbane.

Christie’s is handling the private sale of 21 paintings, nine panoramas, a manuscript expedition map and nearly 300 drawings and watercolours. The buyer is paying £4.2m, of which the RGS is due to receive £3.57m, the difference being Christie’s fees and other costs.

Bound for Australia?

The trustees argued that the society had not directly organised the Gregory expedition, and much of Baines’s material was already in Australian public collections, including Sydney’s Mitchell Library, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Library of Australia. As the RGS is normally unable to display the paintings, a sale to an Australian collection would allow greater public access, at least in the southern hemisphere, the trustees argued. They deemed the Baines material to be outside of the society’s main “historic collection”, and felt that it could therefore be sold.

The Baines pictures were given to the society in 1857 by the British Colonial Office, after discussions with the artist. It seems that the donation was properly made, and no legal impediments to the current sale have been found.

Members of the government’s Export Reviewing Committee raised questions about legal ownership but were told that this was not their responsibility. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (successor to the Colonial Office) has raised no ­objections.

A UK export licence for the works was deferred in August. A British buyer now has until 31 October to match the Australian offer.

Mystery buyer

The buyer remains a mystery. All that the RGS trustees have said is that it is “a major collection in Australia that is of the highest calibre, with a focus on Australian history and culture, including indigenous cultures and exploration and history from the colonial period”.

The material will be held in Western Australia with proper curatorial and conservation support, and with access for scholars and public exhibitions. The RGS is requiring that the Baines pictures should “be kept together as a single collection of materials”.

Given the sum involved, it seems likely that the £4.2m acquisition is being supported by a private donor.

The RGS trustees say that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (now absorbed into Arts Council England) “provided guidance and advised that it was satisfied with the processes that we went through”.

However, the Arts Council gave The Art Newspaper a rather different response. If the sale proceeds, then after the current national review of Designation “it would be appropriate for us to review the Designated status of the RGS collection,” said a spokesman. Designated collections “should be enriched over time, but not depleted”. Losing Designation would probably make it more difficult for the RGS to raise funds.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, which gave £5m to the RGS in 2004, has been more amenable. Its spokeswoman says that the fund does not object to the Baines sale, since it is “not directly related” to the archive project it ­supported.

The anonymous buyer has said that “we greatly welcome this acquisition into our collection and we are looking forward to opportunities to collaborate with the RGS in furthering the interpretation of the Northern Australia Expedition materials”.

The RGS trustees have pledged that “this is a one-off sale to meet these exceptional circumstances, and is not intended to create any precedent for the sale of any other collection’s assets for any other purpose”.

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