Prince of Liechtenstein buys historic British collection

Nine Dutch and Flemish 17th-century works will go to Vienna Museum


London. The Prince of Liechtenstein has purchased a group of nine paintings from an historic British collection, belonging to Lord Northbrook, for his museum in Vienna. These include Michiel van Musscher’s Portrait of an Artist, valued at £6.6m, for which an export licence was deferred, to allow a UK buyer to match the price. Surprisingly, the Export Reviewing Committee was unaware that the Van Musscher was part of a lot, making it more complicated to value.

When Portrait of an Artist was deferred by UK Culture Minister David Lammy on 23 May, it was described as “a formidable example” of Dutch Golden Age painting, and as “by far the most accomplished and well-known work by Van Musscher”. Dating from the 1660s, it has traditionally been thought to depict the maritime painter Willem van de Velde the Younger.

The Northbrook collection was assembled in the mid 19th century and is particularly strong in Dutch and Flemish old masters. Until the group of nine paintings was sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein earlier this year, the collection still included around 50 pictures.

The present sixth baron is Francis Baring of the banking dynasty. He served in 1999-2000 as a Conservative Whip in the House of Lords. Lord Northbrook recently suffered two changes in circumstances which may be related to his decision to sell nine paintings. On 4 December 2005 his Hampshire home, Woodlands Farm, was destroyed by fire, although the pictures were rescued; he also divorced last year.

In addition to the Van Musscher, Lord Northbrook has also sold eight other paintings: Gerrit Berckheyde’s Haarlem with the Town Hall and Haarlem with the Great Church, Hendrick van Vliet’s Interior of the Old Church, Delft, Godfried Schalcken’s Evening Gathering, Jan van Huysum’s Flowers, Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still-life, Joris van der Haagen’s Figures Resting and Alonso Sanchez Coello’s Portrait of Prince Don Diego. All, except the Coello (1577), are Dutch 17th-century works.

The deal was negotiated through the dealer Simon Dickinson in London and Galerie St Lucas in Vienna, and the sale made by Galerie Nissl in Liechtenstein. Although the Liechtenstein Museum badly wanted the Van Musscher, as well as some of the others (particularly the pair of Berckheydes and the Coello), it was less interested in some of the works. “It was a package, and we had to say yes or no [to the lot],” Liechtenstein Museum director Johann Kräftner told The Art Newspaper.

In making an export licence application, the agent initially valued the Van Musscher at £6m, but this was later increased to £6.6m. This price seems high, since it is very much more than the artist has ever fetched before (two works were sold at auction in 1994 and 1999, each going for £287,000). Nevertheless, Portrait of an Artist is his masterpiece, and on 10 May the £6.6m was accepted as fair by the Export Reviewing Committee.

However, the committee was not told that the Van Musscher was purchased as part of a lot. As a price for all nine was negotiated, this may have made it more difficult to determine precisely how much the museum would have been willing to pay just for the Van Musscher.

No UK museum attempted to buy the Van Musscher by the deadline of 22 July, mainly because of the high price, and an export licence was therefore granted. The painting is now being restored before it is put on show in in Vienna.