Prince of Liechtenstein cancels Royal Academy show over impounded Coello masterpiece
He offered to sell painting to the National Gallery, but purchase blocked by UK government
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 16 December 2009
london. Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, has cancelled an exhibition of art treasures at the Royal Academy scheduled for next year, because one of his paintings was impounded in Britain as a result of an HM Revenue & Customs investigation. The work, Portrait of Don Diego, Son of Philip II of Spain, 1577, by Alonso Sánchez Coello, was seized over an export licence dispute more than two years ago.
In a statement issued by the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna on 16 December, it was announced “with regret” that the exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA) “will now not take place”. It had been scheduled for the main galleries from 25 September to 12 December 2010, and was one of its two major loan shows of the year. With around 100 works, it would have included masterpieces by Rubens and Van Dyck-and possibly even the Badminton Cabinet, the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold.
“The Prince does not think it appropriate to proceed with the planned exhibition until the matter of a painting by Sánchez Coello is resolved,” explained Johann Kraeftner, director of the Liechtenstein Museum. He added that the prince might reconsider the show for a future date, once the Coello dispute is resolved.
Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the RA, told us that he "deeply regrets the cancellation of the Liechtenstein exhibition” and is “very upset” about what has occurred. He warned that the move would also “jeopardise international relations with Liechtenstein”.
News of the impending crisis was exclusively revealed in the December issue of The Art Newspaper, in which we reported that the exhibition was under threat because of the seizure of the Coello.
The Coello portrait had been impounded on 12 September 2007 during an investigation into export licence applications made by leading London dealer Simon Dickinson for a group of nine paintings sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein from the collection of Lord Northbrook. It was as a result of an earlier article in The Art Newspaper—in which we reported that there was a package deal—that the Revenue & Customs investigation was initially launched (December 2006).
In September 2007 Dickinson's gallery issued a statement, saying that it was “confident that the paintings were exported in accordance with all relevant regulations”. The Revenue & Customs investigation has taken a considerable time, to the frustration of the parties involved. Meanwhile the seized Coello had been retained by Revenue & Customs in a National Gallery store, in a sealed-off area inaccessible to gallery staff.
Following recent protests from the prince (an innocent party) over the long delay in resolving the matter, the painting was released from custody and handed over to his representative in London on 10 November this year. However, the Coello still has no export licence to enable it to leave the UK for Liechtenstein or Austria, as the prince wishes.
Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw told us that it was vital for the due “legal processes” to continue, to allow the Revenue & Customs investigation to be completed. In this situation, the export licence application cannot be considered.
Even when the legal issues are eventually resolved, the export licence is likely to be deferred to allow a UK buyer to match the price (as it had been recommended by the Export Reviewing Committee in 2007, before the process was interrupted by the investigation).
We can report that the National Gallery is keen to acquire the Coello and is reasonably confident that it can raise the funds. In a surprise move in early December, it emerged that the prince had decided to offer to sell the painting to the National Gallery. The price under discussion was around £2m, which was the value given in the original 2007 export licence application.
But there remained the difficulty that the Coello painting forms part of the Revenue & Customs investigation. The Treasury, which is responsible for Revenue & Customs, made it clear to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that it would view a sale of the picture as complicating the legal situation.
The DCMS in turn passed on this view to the National Gallery. It argued that the National Gallery, as a non-departmental public body receiving government funding, should not buy an object that is currently part of an investigation by another official institution, Revenue & Customs. In this situation the National Gallery reluctantly felt unable to proceed with the purchase.
Saumarez Smith told us that he “found it odd that the Coello should have been released from the custody of the National Gallery, but has not been allowed to be sold to it, thereby leading to the cancellation of our exhibition”.
The RA now has the problem of finding an exhibition to replace the Liechtenstein treasures. A spokeswoman explained: “We have a number of projects in development and are considering alternatives for next autumn.” An announcement is expected early in the New Year.
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