United Kingdom

Ashmolean Museum seeks grant to acquire Degas before auction

If the National Heritage Memorial Fund decides on Monday to award funding, Two Dancers in Yellow will likely be withdrawn from Christie’s sale in February

A Christie's employee views Degas' "Two Dancers in Yellow (Deux danseuses en jaune)", 1896, at the London auction house

LONDON. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is making a final attempt to acquire a Degas pastel before it is auctioned by Christie’s in London on 9 February. Two Dancers in Yellow, 1896, is estimated to fetch £3m-£5m. The pastel is virtually unknown, since in over a century it has only been briefly exhibited, in 1986-7.

The fate of the Degas will be determined on 31 January, when the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) is to decide whether to award a grant. Although the price is not being disclosed, there would be tax advantages in a private treaty sale to a UK public collection. We estimate that the Ashmolean would therefore have to raise around £3.5m.

The problem is that NHMF’s government funding is being cut from £10m to £5m a year starting in April, so its resources are inadequate to save major works of art which come onto the market. The Art Fund has already agreed to make a substantial grant for Two Dancers in Yellow, but it would be difficult for the Ashmolean to proceed without NHMF support.

Although described by Christie’s as belonging to a private European collection, the Degas is owned by the heirs of Berlin art dealer and publisher Bruno Cassirer, who fled from Nazi Germany to Oxford in 1938 (The Art Newspaper, December 2010, p57). His collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists represents the most important brought to Britain by a Jewish refugee.

Cassirer died in 1941, and the Degas later passed to his daughter, Agnes Hill (died 1995), and then to her descendants. The family also owned Cézanne’s Still life with Fruits and Ginger, 1895, which they sold at Christie’s in 2000 for £12.1m.

In 1983 the Degas was loaned to the Ashmolean, but astonishingly it has never been displayed there. The museum told us that this was because of the wish of the lender. It is assumed that the Ashmolean accepted the loan out of hope that eventually Two Dancers in Yellow would join its permanent collection. If it were acquired, the museum would display the light-sensitive pastel for part of the year.

All now depends on NHMF; if it makes a substantial grant, then the Degas is likely to be withdrawn from the Christie’s auction to enable a private treaty sale to the Ashmolean. Otherwise it will be auctioned on 9 February — and will probably go abroad.

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