Deaccessioning Museums United Kingdom

Royal Geographical Society paintings may not go to Australian magnate after all

If the private buyer negotiates a lower price, a UK museum could step in to match it

Thomas Baines’s recorded a British expedition to Australia (1855-57), including meetings with Aborigines

The Royal Geographical Society’s (RGS) controversial sale of its 19th-century paintings of Australia is now in doubt, despite the granting of a UK export licence. The collection of works by Thomas Baines, made during the 1855-57 British expedition to northern Australia, was to have raised just over £3.5m for the society, to plug a deficit in its pension scheme. Although the buyer’s identity was undisclosed by the society, The Art Newspaper named him as Kerry Stokes, a Perth-based investor and collector (November 2013, p18). Stokes is now understood to be trying to renegotiate a lower price with the RGS.

The Baines collection comprises 21 paintings, nine panoramas, an expedition map and nearly 300 drawings and watercolours. These were donated to the society in 1857 by the UK’s Colonial Office. If the sale goes ahead, the collection is likely to be kept at the headquarters of Stokes’s main company, Australian Capital Equity. Access would be allowed to business contacts and academic specialists, with occasional public loans.

An export licence application was lodged last year, and it was deferred until 31 October, to allow UK buyers an opportunity to match the price. This was £4.2m, which included the fee due to Christie’s for handling the private sale and other expenses. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich would have been a natural UK home for the collection, but the museum was, at that time, fundraising for two George Stubbs paintings of Australian animals that had been export-deferred. This made it difficult for the museum to buy the Baines collection. A UK export licence was therefore granted last November.

It now emerges that the sale was never concluded. According to the latest financial accounts of the RGS, it is “progressing the disposal of a discrete group of collections assets, those of artist Thomas Baines, to generate new monies to fund the [pensions] deficit”. A society spokesman was unwilling to elaborate.

The sale is to plug a deficit of just under £2.5m in its staff pension scheme, as well as providing a further £1m to cover possible future liabilities. The society was required to pay £891,500 into the pension scheme in December 2013 and is obliged to pay the same sum again in December 2015. It was originally expected that the 2013 payment could have been made from the Baines proceeds, but presumably the money was found from other sources.

The Art Newspaper understands that the delay in the sale has been due to Stokes holding out for a reduction over the previously agreed price of £4.2m. It is very unusual for a price to be renegotiated after an export licence has been applied for and granted. If Stokes and the society do agree a lower price, the sale would require a fresh UK export licence. UK institutions, including the National Maritime Museum, would then have another opportunity to buy, at a lower sum. A spokeswoman for the Stokes collection told us: “I have not got any further news about it [the Baines collection], we are just waiting to hear.”

If the sale does go ahead, then Arts Council England could strip the RGS of its status as holding a “designated” collection of national importance. A council spokeswoman told us that designated collections should “not be depleted”, and the society’s status would face “review” if the Baines works are sold. Loss of designation status would make it more difficult for the society to fundraise in the future.

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