Acquisitions Museums USA

Boston buyer of London church altarpiece uncovered

But an appeal has been lodged against Anglican court’s decision to allow sale

An 1809 print showing the West altarpiece in situ. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Boston buyer of a Benjamin West altarpiece, which is controversially being sold by a City of London church [The Art Newspaper, June 2013, p3] is believed to be Edward (Ned) Johnson III, the chairman of Fidelity Investments, one of the world’s largest mutual fund and financial services company. The plan is for the huge painting to go on long-term loan or be donated to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), for display at the entrance to the Art of the Americas galleries.

The London church of St Stephen Walbrook is selling West’s Devout Men Taking Away the Body of St Stephen, 1776, to “an American private buyer” for $2.85m, arranged by the London dealer Ben Elwes Fine Art. None of the parties have identified the purchaser, but there is strong evidence that it is Johnson, an honorary trustee of the MFA. Forbes estimates his fortune at $7bn.

A spokesman for Johnson’s office says that “it was unlikely that they would have a comment”, while the MFA also declined to comment.

Agents for the buyer have now applied for a UK export license. This will probably be deferred because it is an important painting, allowing a UK buyer to try and match the price.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the Church Buildings Council has sought leave to appeal against the chancellor’s decision to permit the sale. The council, an Anglican statutory body, argues that the altarpiece was commissioned for St Stephen Walbrook and it should be returned to the church. Judge Nigel Seed, the chancellor of the consistory court of the Diocese of London, has not yet decided whether to hear the appeal or allow it to be referred to a higher church court.

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