On 11 December 2003 Christie’s auctioned a recently discovered 15th century Mantuan roundel depicting Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan. It sold for £7 million ($13 million), a record price for a Renaissance sculpture, and The Art Newspaper later revealed that the buyer was Sheikh al-Thani of Qatar. A UK export licence was deferred and the V&A began a serious fundraising drive. In July 2004 it was revealed that the Sheikh had withdrawn his application and would keep the roundel in the UK. The V&A then attempted to borrow the roundel, but this proved unsuccessful, and it remains locked away in a private house or store.
Our request: Full information on the attempt to buy or borrow the Mantuan roundel.
What we got: Access to a file of original papers, just over one-inch thick. We consulted them at the V&A and were permitted to take copies. The papers related to the export licence and fundraising. Sheikh al-Thani was identified as the buyer in the documents, but his name would probably have been blacked out had it not already been published in the press.
Surprises: The revelation that Sir Timothy Clifford of the National Gallery of Scotland had tried to raise money to buy the roundel in a private treaty sale for £1.5 million (less than a quarter of what it eventually fetched at auction). This was in autumn 2003, a few weeks before the sale.
Also interesting was the V&A’s reaction to the withdrawal of the export licence application by Sheikh al-Thani. Museum director Mark Jones wrote to the Sheikh’s agent on 16 July 2004, saying he was “delighted” with the news—privately, however, the museum was disappointed after having devoted considerable efforts to fundraising (this is indicated by an internal email with the subject-line “very sorry!”). In expressing delight, Mr Jones was presumably hoping to make the best out of the situation, by obtaining a loan—although this never materialised. His letter is a salutary lesson on the dangers of relying solely on archival evidence, which may not tell the whole story.
What we didn’t get: Eight pages contained censored material, a total of 28 lines. Four messages or letters were removed from the file. There was no documentation after July 2004 on the attempt to borrow the roundel—but it seems that the matter was never followed up, or at least not on paper.
What next: Our understanding is that we were provided with virtually all the available documentation and we will not be submitting a request for more information on this story.