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J.M.W. Turner

Turner seller might have done better with Tate

Why was The Dark Rigi sold privately, when a public sale would have given valuable tax breaks?

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by The Art Newspaper have revealed more of the astonishing story of the way Tate was outmanoeuvred by a private buyer over Turner’s The Dark Rigi (September 2006, p 1, 3 and October 2006, p5). The big surprise is that the original owner of the watercolour might have gained an extra £478,000 ($894,000) by selling to a public collection, rather than to a private individual.

The papers show that a sale to the Tate would have generated considerable tax advantages. If the gallery had purchased The Dark Rigi, it would have had to pay £1.27m, rather than the £2.7m which had initially been offered by the overseas buyer, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (the deal fell through when an export licence was refused). This is because UK public institutions are allowed tax concessions when purchasing works of art under a private treaty sale. The seller also receives a smaller concession, known as a douceur (sweetener), to encourage such sales.

The original owner would then have stood to make an additional £478,000 if a sale had been made to the Tate. So it is difficult to understand why London dealer Simon Dickinson, who was handling the sale, advised the original owner to sell to a private buyer, rather than the Tate. (It is, however, possible that the private buyer paid an additional £478,000 to the seller, on top of the £2.7m, making a total of £3.18m. However, it is unclear whether the deal would be regarded as a “matching offer” under UK export regulations.)

The newly-released papers also reveal more details about the way the transaction was conducted behind the scenes. The Tate reacted promptly when it first heard officially that the watercolour had been export deferred, to allow a UK buyer to match the price. Curator Robin Hamlyn received the news just after 6pm on 23 May, a few hours after the announcement by culture minister David Lammy. The next morning he telephoned the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which administers the export system, to express the Tate’s interest in buying the work.

The eventual sale to a private buyer is even more inexplicable because he or she has offered to lend The Dark Rigi to a public gallery. Mr Dickinson confirmed, in a letter to the Antiques Trade Gazette, that the new owner is “willing to place it on long-term loan with a UK public collection or make it available for specific exhibitions with UK public collections”. He added that “we should be most surprised if this drawing were ever sold again”, which suggests that it may eventually be donated to a museum.

Yet the figures show that the private buyer may well have ended up paying £3,178,000, compared with the £1,265,000 it would have cost the Tate. Were the buyer a philanthropist, it would have been more sensible to have given Tate the cash to buy the Turner.

Last month Tate told The Art Newspaper that it is in touch with Mr Dickinson to discuss borrowing The Dark Rigi. The British Museum also said that if the Turner were offered on loan, it would “be happy to accept”, although suggesting that Tate would be the obvious home.

Meanwhile, an export licence application has now been made for another Turner watercolour, The Blue Rigi, which sold at Christie’s, London on 5 June, the very day that The Dark Rigi was bought by the private owner. The Blue Rigi went for £5.83m, and an export licence was deferred. UK buyers have until 20 November to state that they are making serious efforts to raise the money: if so, the deferral period could then be extended until 20 March 2007.