With the Castle Howard Guercino, Timothy Clifford has saved from export one more in a long line of masterpieces. Is he the last of Britain’s great acquirers?

The successes and (rare) failures of a passionate collector

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Timothy Clifford last month saved the Castle Howard Guercino “Erminia finding the wounded Tancred” from export to the Getty Museum, to which it had been sold privately in December 1995 for £3.5 million (The Art Newspaper No. 55, January 1996, p.3). The difficulty he faced after it was given a six-month export stop was that Sotheby’s, acting for the owners, would not agree to sell until one week from the deadline, so he could not launch his campaign earlier, this despite the fact that, with the Museums and Galleries Commission acting for him, he was offering the tax advantages of a private treaty sale. Contrary to certain reports in the press, the deadline was given exactly a one-month extension and not a day longer. In the event, Mr Clifford managed to put together the necessary £2,040, 096 from various sources including Sir Denis Mahon, John Paul Getty Jr, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund and the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The acquisition of the Guercino continues the impressive roll-call of works saved for the nation by Mr Clifford, who, with Neil Macgregor of London’s National Gallery (but with a much smaller budget: £1.8 million in 1993/94 slashed to £ 660,000 in 1995/96) is the most active collector for his institution of all Britain’s museum directors.

When still head of the Manchester City Art Gallery, Mr Clifford saved the Algardi bust of Monsignor Cerri from going to the Metropolitan and the Duccio Crucifixion from being exported to the Getty. He lost his battle with that museum for the Marquess of Northampton’s “Adoration of the Magi” by Mantegna, despite having raised half of the £8 million purchase price. His only other defeat, also at the hands of the Getty, has been over the Poussin “Madonna and Child with angels” from Chatsworth.

Mr Clifford has shown himself an ingenious campaigner for the great historic works of art in this country. “Any museum director could do the same”, he says. “It is not a question of how big your purchase grant is; for example, we had no money at all when we were negotiating for the Guercino because the museum’s entire purchase grant had been consumed by the acquisition of the Penrose collection of twentieth-century art”.

Major purchases and works saved from export by Mr Clifford since becoming director of the National Galleries of Scotland in 1984 are: the Bernini bust of Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo from Castle Howard; Benjamin West’s “Alexander III saved from the fury of the stag”, destined for the National Gallery, Washington; (with the Victoria and Albert Museum) Canova’s “Three Graces”, destined for the Getty Museum; the lion’s share of the Old Master drawings sold from Holkham, due to be exported to various locations; Orazio Gentileschi “The finding of Moses” and two Canova terracottas from Castle Howard.

Mr Clifford is active in using the fiscal advantages of private treaty sales, and has acquired a Leonardo drawing, and two Raphael drawings from Chatsworth by these means.

He emphasises that he is not gunning at the Getty in particular; he has nearly always been trying to negotiate his purchases before the Getty has become involved. This was the case with the Guercino, which he was already trying to buy from Castle Howard in autumn 1995, when he attempted to put together a £5 million package to buy that picture with the Gentileschi and two Canova terracottas.

Mr Clifford points out that if he had received more support from Lottery funds in his early negotiations at £5 million with Castle Howard, the nation could have had four major works of art for millions less than was eventually paid (the Gentileschi alone was auctioned December 1995 for £4.6 million without buyer’s premium).

Adding to museum collections is, however, considered less and less of a priority in official circles and even among many museum curators since 1985, when Mrs Thatcher froze the national museums’ purchase grants. Mr Clifford remains a rare example of the passionately acquiring museum curator.

The Getty Museum’s John Walsh reacts

John Walsh, director of the J.Paul Getty Museum, expressed his disappointment at the loss of the Guercino but commented: “It would be unfortunate if the acquisition were to be interpreted as being the outcome of a contest between museums”. He explained: “Our disappointment lies in the manner in which Britain’s export licence application system is now being operated. The Getty purchased the painting and applied for an export licence seven months ago. The case of the Guercino clearly demonstrates yet again that there is something seriously wrong with the way in which sales to British museums are negotiated and arranged. Indeed, there is good reason now for the government to carry out a wholesale review of the art export system, which is currently greatly damaging Britain’s position in the international art market. In the meantime, we will continue to respect both the letter and spirit of the system as it stands”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The successes and (rare) failures of a passionate collector'

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