Prince of Liechtenstein threatens major Royal Academy show

If one of his works is not released by the UK authorities, an exhibition drawn from his collection will be pulled


The Royal Academy’s 2010 exhibition of treasures from the Liechtenstein Collection faces cancellation because one of Prince Hans-Adam II’s paintings has been impounded in London. His Portrait of the Infante Don Diego, 1577, by Alonso Coello, was barred from export by HM Revenue and Customs, after the Prince bought the work three years ago.

Johann Kräftner, the director of the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna, said: “The Prince would not feel comfortable sending his collection to London if they are holding a picture of his.” He says that the Royal Academy (RA) exhibition will have to be cancelled unless the export licence for the Coello is dealt with promptly. As we went to press, Kräftner’s deadline had just passed, and the British authorities were trying to resolve the problem.

The RA’s Liechtenstein Collection exhibition is scheduled to open on 25 September next year. It would comprise well over 100 objects, including paintings by Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck.

The exhibition will only be able to go ahead if the Prince is willing to accept UK government indemnity to protect his loans instead of commercial insurance, which would be prohibitive for the RA, given the total value of the works loaned. But “the Prince could not accept government indemnity from a state which has seized one of his paintings,” Kräftner explained.

The dispute centres around a work by Coello, a precursor of Velázquez. In 2006 the Prince of Liechtenstein bought the painting from the collection of Lord Northbrook, through leading London dealer Simon Dickinson. In The Art Newspaper (December 2006, p23) we reported that it was among a “package” of nine Northbrook paintings which the Prince bought via Dickinson.

When an export licence application was made in early 2007 for the Coello, the painting was valued by the applicant at £2m, and because of its importance it was deferred in May to allow a UK buyer to match the price. The National Gallery decided that it wanted to raise the funds to acquire it. But in September HM Revenue & Customs launched an investigation into the licence applications for the nine paintings and their valuations, and the Coello was impounded. The National Gallery had to postpone fundraising until the legal issues were resolved.

In October 2007 Dickinson’s gallery issued a statement, saying: “Simon C. Dickinson was instructed in the sale of a number of paintings by the Northbrook Collection to the Prince of Liechtenstein. The Gallery is aware of inquiries currently ongoing relating to the export of certain of the paintings sold. The Gallery is confident that the paintings were exported in accordance with all relevant regulations.”

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which administers the export system, announced on 23 November 2007 that a decision on the export licence of the Coello would be postponed. It would be “reconsidered six weeks after the date on which the investigation by HM Revenue & Customs and any resulting court proceedings relevant to the valuation of this painting is concluded”.

Meanwhile, the Coello was sent to the National Gallery’s storeroom and was placed in a “sealed” area. After two years had elapsed, Johann Kräftner, who is acting on the Prince’s behalf, was becoming frustrated that a painting legitimately acquired and paid for was being withheld. Kräftner is in contact with senior Treasury officials, who are responsible for HM Revenue & Customs. This summer he was told that the HM Revenue & Customs investigation would be concluded by 30 September 2009. Two days before this date, he was informed that further inquiries had been instituted.

Following protests, it was agreed that the Coello could be transferred to the Prince’s representative, but that it would not be allowed to leave the UK. The painting was then handed over on 10 November, when it was moved by a Liechtenstein Museum agent to a commercial store in London. A representative of Dickinson’s welcomed the move, saying: “The Gallery has always considered that the painting had been improperly detained. It is pleased to note that the work has now been released, and as far as the Gallery is concerned, the matter is now closed.”

However, the Prince wants to take the painting to his museum in Vienna or his castle in Vaduz. The RA exhibition is therefore threatened with cancellation.

The British authorities are in a difficult position. If the HM Revenue & Customs investigation continues, then the department for culture (which issues export licences) has already stated that it would only consider the matter six weeks after the inquiry is concluded.

Even if the Treasury allowed the investigation to be dropped, an export licence would need to be granted, which usually means seeking advice from the Export Reviewing Committee. The latter has already recommended that export should be deferred. And even if the department agreed to proceed, it would still be necessary to reconfirm the £2m valuation and allow at least six weeks for the National Gallery to make a matching offer.

Meanwhile, the Liechtenstein Museum and the RA need to finalise details for the September exhibition, and time is running out for the complex preparations. As we went to press, it is unclear whether an agreement will be reached—or whether the RA will lose one of its two most important shows for next year.