Victoria and Albert Museum fails to secure Clive of India flask

Collector sheikh stalemates art export process

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London

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has been thwarted in its attempt to buy the £3 million Clive of India flask because Sheikh Saud al Thani has withdrawn his export licence for Qatar. This has led to concerns that the UK licensing system is not working and needs reforms.

Sheikh Saud bought the four Clive of India treasures at Christie’s on 27 April last year, for display in his planned Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Export licences were deferred until 13 December, to enable UK buyers to match the prices. In the meantime, the V&A announced that it was trying to raise funds to acquire the magnificent 17th-century jade flask, which is lined with silver and set with rubies and emeralds in gold.

On 9 December, the National Art Collections Fund decided to offer a grant of £400,000 to the V&A and an application was also being submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. On 13 December, the first deferral period came to an end, but the following day it would have been extended to 13 March, because a serious effort was being made by the UK buyer to raise the £2,973,000.

Then, on 14 December, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport received a message from Sheikh Saud’s agent, saying his licence application was being withdrawn. This means that the Sheikh will have to keep the flask in the UK, presumably in one of his private residences.

The case of the Clive of India treasures has been particularly sensitive because of the role of Oliver Watson. He is chief curator of the Doha Museum of Islamic Art, but on secondment from the V&A. This meant that he had earlier appeared before the Export Reviewing Committee to argue the case for allowing the export, against the committee’s expert, who was the V&A curator Susan Stronge.

The National Trust, which owns Clive of India’s former home, Powis Castle, has also been thwarted by Sheikh Saud. It was trying to buy another of the treasures, a silver hubble-bubble huqqa pipe, valued at £98,000. The Sheikh also withdrew this export licence application at a late stage, which means that the huqqa will also have to stay in the UK. Although licences were deferred on the Sheikh’s two other Clive of India purchases, a flywhisk handle and dagger, no UK buyer emerged, and the pieces have presumably now been exported.

The withdrawal of licence applications after a UK museum has been raising, or has raised the funds, is causing considerable concern for museum officials.

Mark Jones, director of the V&A, now feels there should be a reform of the present export rules, to allow buyers to lend objects to UK museums for agreed periods on a perpetual basis, in return for an export licence. In this case, for instance, the flask could be shown for one year in the V&A and the next year at the Doha Museum, and so on.

In a quite separate move, the National Gallery has acquired two paintings which were in the collection of the descendants of Clive of India, a pair of Vernet landscapes, “Calme” and “Tempête”, sold at Sotheby’s in 2003. The £2.4 million was provided by US oil tycoon David Koch, through the American Friends of the National Gallery. Until this summer, the Vernets will be exhibited in London, but from then on they will be lent to Mr Koch and he can hang them in his New York residence. After his death, they will return permanently to London. This unusual arrangement received special approval from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Collector sheikh stalemates art export process'

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