Art theft

Why has the Tate still not claimed for its stolen Freud?

Although it was covered by British government indemnity, the painting’s value remains unclaimed since its 1988 theft


The Tate has not made a claim against the British government for its stolen 1952 portrait of Francis Bacon, by Lucian Freud, 21 years after its theft in Berlin. The painting could now be worth £10m, a leading London dealer told The Art Newspaper.

The early portrait had been on loan to a British Council exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie. It was stolen on 27 May 1988, but despite a £100,000 reward and a major poster campaign in Berlin in 2001, it was not recovered.

Last month the Tate told us that it had not claimed against the government’s indemnity scheme for two reasons: “We have always hoped that the painting will be recovered and there has been no suitable replacement for such a unique work.”

Although the majority of major stolen works do eventually surface, after so many years the chances are slimmer. If the Tate had accepted compensation, and the portrait did eventually turn up, then legal title would lie with the government. However, rather than auction off the Freud, it would probably be given on long-term loan to the Tate.

It is unclear why the Tate has interpreted a “suitable replacement” in such narrow terms. In 1990 it bought Freud’s Standing by the Rags, 1989, for £920,000, but no claim was made for compensation towards this purchase. The Tate apparently felt that being a late Freud, it could not be considered a replacement.

There is only one other Freud portrait of Bacon, an unfinished work from 1957. It came up for auction at Christie’s on 19 October 2008 (est £5m-£7m), selling for £5.4m to a private buyer. Once again, the Tate did not seek compensation to acquire the work. If the only other Freud portrait of Bacon was not regarded as a replacement, then it is difficult to know what would be.

We can report that the original valuation for the stolen Freud, proposed by the Tate, was £75,000, although the artist’s prices have risen rapidly in recent years. If a claim were now to be lodged by the Tate, it is unclear whether the gallery could only claim for the original £75,000 or the present value—which would be more than 100 times higher. One source told us this is a “grey area” that has never been tested.

Under the UK system, national art collections are indemnified for overseas loans to British Council exhibitions up to a maximum of £3m. After this, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (which sponsors the British Council) covers the next £3m. Any request for reimbursement of over £6m has to be made to the Treasury, via the Foreign Office. Foreign Office or Treasury compensation for UK national art collections is discretionary, and has to be negotiated (unlike for other lenders, for whom indemnity coverage is guaranteed). In the Freud case, the loss was entirely a British government responsibility, and the German government and Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie were not financially liable.

Turners on loan

Although the Tate has never claimed for the Freud, its trustees are now wary about major loans for British Council exhibitions overseas. This is because the £3m guaranteed sum is not now necessarily sufficient to cover a major work and certainly not for a group of works.

In the case of the Tate’s Turner show, “J.M.W. Turner: Oils and Watercolours from Tate Britain”, which went to Russia and China, there were 112 loans, worth more than £650m. The Tate insisted on commercial insurance, rather than relying on the Treasury’s indemnity. For Moscow’s Pushkin Museum (November 2008-February 2009), the insurance was paid for by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov’s Moscow-based Art and Sport Foundation. This amounted to around £600,000 out of his total £1.5m sponsorship.

The show was then due to go on to Beijing’s National Art Museum of China, opening in April (and running until 28 June). Originally, sponsorship had been negotiated with a Chinese bank, but the credit crunch intervened before the deal was signed. Cancellation of the exhibition was threatened, but the Foreign Office was keen for it to proceed, for diplomatic reasons.

The Foreign Office therefore provided additional support of £350,000, which enabled the British Council to bear the cost of commercial insurance for the first £100m, the premium for which was several hundred thousand pounds. With the show valued at £650m, this left £550m not covered by the commercial insurance, although it does fall under the indemnity provided by the Treasury on a discretionary basis. The Tate’s trustees were willing to accept this because it would be very unlikely for an entire exhibition to be stolen or damaged.

The Tate’s two Turner paintings stolen in Frankfurt in 1994—Shade and Darkness: the Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour: the Morning After the Deluge, both 1843—were covered by commercial insurance, not government indemnity (since it was not a British Council show). The following year the Tate made an insurance claim, receiving £24m, but in 1998 it purchased back legal title for £8m. The pictures were eventually recovered in 2000 and 2002. Martin Bailey


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