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Tate to launch campaign to buy Turner’s Blue Rigi for £5m–the highest price it has ever paid for a work of art

The gallery is hoping to display all three Rigi watercolours in January, uniting them for the first time

Tate is to launch a fundraising campaign to buy Turner’s The Blue Rigi for nearly £5m. This would be the most expensive picture which the gallery has ever bought.

The Art Newspaper can also reveal that Tate Britain hopes to hold an exhibition of Turner’s three Rigi Mountain watercolours, two of which were recently sold in sensational circumstances.

Assuming that complicated negotiations are successful, the show is expected to open on 22 January. All three Rigi watercolours are late masterpieces, from 1842, depicting the mountain from Lake Lucerne at various times of the day, with different dominant colours. Despite the Tate’s huge Turner collection, mainly bequeathed by the artist, the gallery lacks an example of the Rigi works. The Blue Rigi will cost £4.8m-£5m, including around £1m in tax savings.

1. The Dark Rigi has had a chequered history this year. In February it was sold by London dealer Simon Dickinson to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for £2.7m, subject to a UK export licence being granted. Following the licence application, Tate decided to try to match the price. However, on 5 June, the day this news reached Mr Dickinson, he said that The Dark Rigi had been sold a few hours earlier to a private British-based buyer. Mr Dickinson later said that the new owner would be willing to lend the Turner to a UK gallery, and Tate is now negotiating to borrow the picture (The Art Newspaper, November 2007, p7).

2. The Blue Rigi came up at Christie’s on 5 June, the same day that London dealer Simon Dickinson sold The Dark Rigi. At the auction, The Blue Rigi fetched an astonishing £5,830,000 (its estimate was £2m). Unconfirmed reports suggest that it went to a major American collector. An export licence for The Blue Rigi was initially deferred until 20 November, and by this time Tate had formally expressed its interest in buying the watercolour, despite the huge price tag that would have to be matched. The deferral period was then extended until 20 March 2007. There will be tax advantages on a sale to a UK public gallery, and we can reveal that Tate will have to raise between £4.8 and £5m to acquire The Blue Rigi. Applications are likely to be submitted to the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund/Heritage Lottery Fund. The foreign purchaser is expected to lend The Blue Rigi for Tate’s fundraising drive.

3. The Red Rigi, the third of the trio, belongs to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It was acquired by the gallery in 1947. A loan to Tate is expected to be approved, allowing the first opportunity ever to see the three Rigi watercolours together.