Race to save £300 million Titians for UK

The Duke of Sutherland is selling two paintings on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland since 1945; National Gallery in London joins forces with Edinburgh to raise the money

A pair of Titian paintings of Diana, goddess of the hunt, are being offered to the National Gallery of Scotland (NGS) and the National Gallery (NG) in London for £100m. Once part of the Bridgewater collection, these could well be the most important works of art to come onto the British market since the 19th century. They have been on long-term loan to Edinburgh from the Dukes of Sutherland since 1945.

“It is tempting to see the sale as a crisis, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity,” says NGS director general John Leighton. The £100m price for both Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto takes into account the tax advantages of a sale to a public collection. The Duke is also offering a significant discount to the two galleries. The Art Newspaper estimates that on the open market the pair of Titians would probably fetch over £300m.

Although the proposed two-part deal has until now been kept confidential, we learned of it last month. Diana and Actaeon is on offer for £50m, with a deadline of 31 December for proceeding. If the sale is successfully concluded, the two galleries would be offered Diana and Callisto for a similar sum in 2013.

Until now, the most expensive work of art acquired by a UK public collection has been Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, bought by the NG in 2004 for £22m, with tax advantages (its open market value was £35m).

It is difficult to overstate the significance of the Titians. For the NGS, just one of the Diana paintings would represent its most important acquisition since its establishment in 1850. For the NG in London, one of them would arguably be its greatest acquisition since the 19th century (the only two other contenders would be Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in 1906 and the Wilton Diptych in 1929).

Equally important, the purchase of the first Titian will ensure that 26 other Bridgewater pictures continue to remain on long-term loan to the NGS from the Duke of Sutherland, initially with a 21-year guarantee. At present they can be withdrawn with six months’ notice. Collected by the Duke of Bridgewater in the 1790s, they include masterpieces by Raphael, Rembrandt and Poussin, as well as two other Titians. On his death, the collection passed to his nephew’s second son, who became the 1st Duke of Sutherland.

The Bridgewater pictures represent the greatest private collection of old masters on loan to a museum anywhere in the world. They are also the most important loan ever made to a UK museum. The Art Newspaper estimates that even after the sale of the two Titians, the Bridgewater paintings would be worth well over £1bn on the open market.

Decision to sell

So why is the Duke selling? His spokesperson told The Art Newspaper: “The Bridgewater collection has grown in value to the point where it is prudent to review the holding in terms of the balance of the family’s overall assets. It does now seem sensible to consider the sale of some part of this collection.”

Too much of the Duke’s wealth is concentrated in a small number of pictures. The Sunday Times Rich List values his non-art assets at £30m, primarily estates in the Scottish Borders and East Anglia (the newspaper goes on to value the Bridgewater paintings at £300m, a fraction of the true figure). The 7th Duke, aged 68, has two sons, James and Henry, who are both married with children. Some of the paintings are owned personally by the Duke and others by a family trust.

The Duke privately told Mr Leighton last year that he wanted to sell works from the collection. It was a difficult moment for the NGS, since the gallery was deeply involved in arranging a complex financial package to jointly buy the Anthony d’Offay collection of contemporary art with Tate, a deal which was finalised this February. Nevertheless, Mr Leighton immediately decided that the Sutherland pictures must be saved, and as with the d’Offay works, teaming up with a London gallery seemed to offer the best chance of success.

NG director Dr Nicholas Penny admitted to us that in the current financial climate, “now is not the best time to raise money, but the terms of the Duke’s offer are extraordinary.” There are fiscal advantages because the paintings have long been conditionally exempt from inheritance tax, which would normally become payable if they are sold. However, with a private treaty sale to a gallery, the tax would not be charged (with the Treasury effectively forfeiting the sum), and there is also an element of a douceur which ultimately benefits a public collection.

This would very considerably reduce the price of the two Titians, although the precise tax liability (and therefore the advantage of a sale to the galleries) can only be calculated nearer completion of the deal. The Duke is giving a discount to the NGS and NG, since he would like to see the Titians go to UK public collections; the size of this element will remain unclear until the tax situation has been finalised.

Last year the Titians were valued for indemnity purposes (covering their loan to the NGS) at £180m for the pair. However, this represents a very conservative estimate, and on the open market they would probably fetch over £300m.

Each of the Titians would be the most valuable work of art ever to be sold. The record price for an old master is the £49.5m paid by Lord Thomson for a Rubens in 2002, although half a dozen or so late 19th- and 20th-century paintings have sold for more (including several that went for close to £70m).

Challenge

The Titians are on offer to the NGS and NG on deferred terms. For Diana and Actaeon, a down payment would be due on 1 January 2009, with the remainder due in three annual payments up to 2011. Once this sale is completed, Diana and Callisto could be bought for a similar price in 2013-15.

Each gallery would be responsible for raising half the sum, and the paintings would become jointly owned (this would be the first time that the NGS and NG have made joint acquisitions). It will be necessary to assemble a complex package of funding.

The NGS has an annual government purchase grant of £1,260,000 a year. Although the NG has no special element of its grant-in-aid for acquisitions, it does have access to the Getty Endowment, which is administered by the American Friends of the National Gallery. Normally only the revenue (not the endowment) is spent, which amounts to around £3m a year.

A substantial request will be submitted to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which is funded by government to the tune of £10m a year. This has to cover the country’s historical and natural heritage, and only a fraction of its grant money could reasonably be expected for the Titians.

The Art Fund is likely to help, although so far its largest grants have been £1m for the d’Offay collection and £2m for Dumfries House (May 2007). Both the NGS and NG would also seek private donations. One source that is unlikely to be available is the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is increasingly reluctant to assist with major acquisitions.

The Scottish government occasionally gives special acquisition grants to the NGS. Its largest so far has been £10m towards the purchase of the d’Offay collection. A government spokesman told us that ministers are aware of the “paramount national importance” of the Bridgewater collection and are determined to do “everything they can” to ensure it remains on view.

Dr Penny also confirmed that the NG “will be be going to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport”, to ask for a special application to the Treasury. However, the last time the Treasury made a special acquisition grant was in 1972, when it gave £381,500 to the NG to help buy Titian’s The Death of Actaeon. (This painting, dating from some years later than the Bridgewater Titians, was bought for £1.8m—which at the time was widely regarded as a scandalously high price for a work of art.)

Raising a total of £100m may just be feasible over a seven-year period, although it will be an enormous challenge. The NGS and NG will also need to ensure that the Titians do not have an unduly negative impact on other acquisitions. It should be possible to continue to make relatively modest purchases, and even an occasional picture costing several million pounds. But if a painting worth more than £10m were to come onto the market, it would be very difficult to contemplate buying it while the Titians are being bought.

Assuming success, the two Titians will be displayed together as pendants (rather than one being in Edinburgh and the other in London). The plan is that they should rotate roughly every five years. The paintings have never left Edinburgh since the loan began in 1945, but the NGS deems that they are fit to travel from a conservation point of view, although only on an occasional basis.

Both galleries will provide equally appropriate settings: in Edinburgh they will be seen with the rest of the Bridgewater pictures (including two other Titians) and in London with one of the world’s finest collections of Venetian Renaissance works.

But what if the NGS and NG fail to raise the money? The Duke’s spokesman says that “he will have to make sales on the open market”. Mr Leighton warns: “There is no other plan. If this doesn’t work, and we leave the table, then the owner has made it clear that a decision has been made for a sale.” Although it will not necessarily be the two Titians, it will be “a significant part of the collection.” Equally worrying, there would be uncertainty over guarantees for the loan of the remainder.

Mr Leighton admits that in going for the Titians “we are in uncharted waters, but we are absolutely determined to give it our very best effort.”

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