For 40 years, a 12th-century walrus-ivory carving on loan to the V&A in London has captured the imagination of museum visitors. The name of its maker is lost in time, but the craftsmanship of the tiny sculpture, which shows Joseph of Arimathea, eyes closed in silent suffering as he embraces the lifeless body of Christ, reveals their exceptional artistry.

Now this rare masterpiece, “The Deposition from the Cross”, has been sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in a transaction brokered by Sotheby’s. However, Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport has placed a temporary export bar on the carving and given the V&A until June 14 to raise £2mn so it can match the price paid by the American institution — and keep the ‘Deposition’ in its galleries.

Does it make sense for the V&A to compete with a far richer institution across the Atlantic? For the museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, the answer is an emphatic “yes”. The “Deposition” was made in York and “it’s an elemental part of pre-Reformation English culture. We lost so much to the iconoclasm of the Reformation but this survived and it speaks to a culture which almost vanished in the 16th century,” he says. The object’s artistic excellence and its connection to other pieces at the museum make the V&A the ideal place for it, adds Hunt.

A man with blowy light brown hair wearing a light blue shirt and navy suit
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A © David Hartley/Shutterstock

The tussle between two of the world’s great museums over the “Deposition” is emblematic of the current reality of European countries battling to hold on to their cultural heritage in the face of the vastly superior purchasing power of buyers in the US, the Middle East and Asia. Behind the fight stand big questions about the declining public funding of museums, the role of philanthropists and who should have access to important objects.

This is not a new issue. Britain’s export licence deferral system was set up in 1952 precisely to halt the exodus to the US of great art. In the early 20th century, British art dealer Joseph Duveen had sold thousands of paintings and sculptures from impoverished British and European aristocrats to American industrialists, observing that “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.”

To balance the public interest in retaining important works with that of individuals wanting to move them freely across borders, the British system was designed to halt the departure of the most significant items. They were measured against three factors established by John Anderson, first Viscount Waverley (now known as the Waverley Criteria): is the object closely connected with British history and national life? Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance? Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Painting of a dark-skinned woman in an orange shawl holds a small light-skinned child as another light-skinned child tries to read a book
‘A Young Teacher’ (1861) by Rebecca Solomon. An export ban was placed on the painting for its importance in shedding light on English social history, leading to Tate and the Museum of the Home buying it. It will be part of ‘Now You See Us: Women Artists In Britain 1520-1920’ at Tate Britain from May 16 to October 13 © Tate/Museum of the Home

Once an export licence has been requested, an expert adviser decides whether this can be granted or if the reviewing committee needs to examine the object with the advice of specialists. A recommendation is then submitted to the government’s culture secretary, who decides whether to delay an export licence to allow museums the chance to buy the item in question at a fair market price. If no buyer emerges or the funds cannot be raised, an export licence is granted. Between 2009-10 and 2021-22, export licences were applied for relating to £922mn of art, according to the Arts Council; more than a third of the objects were ultimately saved for museums.

Institutions and commercial dealers generally regard the British system as necessary, efficient and fair. Three London-based dealers in Old Master pictures — Charles Beddington, Johnny van Haeften and Fabrizio Moretti — all agree that the scheme works well. “I feel strongly that items that have a special significance to our national story should stay in the country,” says Beddington. Van Haeften agrees: “A nation has a duty to protect its heritage.” Moretti is decisive: “The English system is the fairest in the world.”

By comparison, the legal regime in Italy is far more restrictive. The country has long combated the looting of its antiquities and first asserted the supremacy of the public interest over individual property rights in cultural protection legislation passed in 1939. Today, any item worth more than €13,500 which is more than 70 years old and made by an artist who is no longer alive requires the permission of the ministry of culture to leave the country. Applications for export licences are made to any of 18 ministry branch offices around the country.

Unlike in Britain, it is not specialists who assess the importance of each item. Instead, whichever office receives the export application evaluates it. “The officials tend to be mostly all Old Masters people,” says Anna Somers Cocks, the founder-editor of The Art Newspaper, who has long called for the reform of Italy’s art-export laws. “They may know little about decorative arts or archival material so important items in these categories often escape, while quite unimportant paintings are routinely blocked.”

Oil painting of a man in a suit reclining on a chasie covered by a tiger skin
‘Portrait of Algernon Moses Marsden’ (1877) by Jacques Joseph Tissot was bought for £2.4mn jointly by the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, with philanthropic support. An export ban was applied because it illuminated the history of collecting — Marsden was an art dealer © Uwe Deffner/Alamy

More importantly, the Italian system engenders “a bad relationship between the state and the citizen”, she adds. “Italian authorities treat private owners of art as potential criminals and art dealers as actual criminals, instead of encouraging everyone to work together for the common good.” The culture ministry can also issue pre-emptive notices to block objects’ exports even when no export licence has been applied for, and retains the right to buy blocked objects sold to buyers abroad at a price which it determines. The overall effect is drastically to reduce the value of works because it discourages buyers who do not live in the country or have homes there. This has curtailed the art market in Italy.

Italy is not the only country to have emphasised protection over its art market. Germany introduced a Cultural Property Protection Act in 2016, which included new, far-ranging controls on the country’s art market, despite widespread criticism from the art world.

Far from saving art for the nation, the German law caused an exodus of works in the run-up to its introduction, says the Munich-based dealer Daniel Blau. “I moved my entire collection out of the country. The transport companies were so busy moving art, they ran out of trucks.” If Germany wants this art back, “the law should be scrapped,” says Blau. “It amounts to an expropriation of cultural property because, unlike in Britain and France, the state doesn’t have to buy the art that it blocks from export or remunerate the owner” for any decline in value.

By European standards, then, Britain seems to balance the public interest in retaining national heritage with the rights of property owners, but it only makes sense if the money can realistically be raised. Have surging art prices made this export deferral system unworkable?

“We are stopping things that are increasingly higher in value and there isn’t the funding to perhaps save enough,” says Stuart Lochhead, a London dealer in European sculpture who is a member of the reviewing committee on the export of works.

Oil painting from the perspective of someone sitting in a boat, watching a man in a top hat and waistcoat row
Gustave Caillebotte’s ‘Partie de Bateau’ (1877-78) was prevented from leaving France after LVMH bought it for €43mn and donated it to the Musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Franck Raux

“France has a very favourable tax system that encourages companies to contribute towards the purchase of works which have been declared national patrimony,” says Lochhead, citing the example of an Impressionist painting, Gustave Caillebotte’s “Partie de Bateau” (1877-78), which was acquired for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris last year with €43mn solely from the luxury goods group LVMH.

“We couldn’t do that for ‘Omai’,” says Lochhead, referring to Joshua Reynolds’ 1776 portrait of the first Polynesian man to visit Britain. After receiving a temporary export ban, it was jointly acquired for £50mn last year by the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The institutions will now take it in turn to display it every five years.

Such shared ownership may become more common. “I have wondered whether there might be a way of using the export licensing system more imaginatively,” says Mark Jones, interim director of the British Museum, “perhaps by giving overseas purchasers an opportunity to explain how they would ensure that damage to the public interest in the object in question could be mitigated.”

Jones, who stresses that this is his personal view, suggests that “if the purchaser offered a binding pledge that the work in question would spend half its time on display in a UK museum, the reviewing committee might consider giving it a conditional export licence. Not ideal, perhaps. But nor is the prospect of raising a large sum of money to match the purchase price, especially in these hard times.”

A man with short grey hair in a navy pullover and suit
The British Museum’s interim director, Mark Jones © Dan Kitwood/Staff

For now, Tristram Hunt remains confident that the V&A can raise the funds to keep the “Deposition” in Britain. Applications are being submitted to the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund, and the public can contribute via the museum’s website. Would he consider sharing the medieval carving with the Metropolitan Museum? “We have enormous respect for the Met but you would have to pay $30 to see it there. Here you can see it for free. We think there’s a stronger case for it to be here.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article