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Collector’s £100m art bequest to the UK

Denis Mahon’s gift of the century comes with conditions

The paintings left by Sir Denis Mahon represent the most valuable bequest of works of art to UK galleries in nearly a century. The 58 works are worth around £100m (in real terms)—considerably more than has been reported. A distinguished art historian, Mahon died on 24 April at the age of 100.

Mahon was ruthless in using his collection to put pressure on governments and galleries for the public causes he supported. As Peter Cannon-Brookes, a former director of National Museum Wales, wrote in his obituary: “Changing one’s will is the last blood sport left to the elderly, and Mahon kept everyone guessing.”

The future of his 17th-century Italian paintings will only be confirmed after his will is published later this year. Highlights include works by Guercino, Reni and Giordano.

Mahon started to buy in the 1930s when prices were low and he once told The Art Newspaper that he had spent less than £50,000 on the collection (December 1996, p11). Now worth around £100m, only the Ernest Cook bequest to UK galleries in 1955 might come close in value (we are considering bequests only, not lifetime gifts, such as the D’Offay donation of 2008).

Suzanne Marriott, the lawyer handling Mahon’s 2007 will, says that the terms of the bequest will remain private until the will has been proved and title has passed to the executors. At that point the paintings will go to Sir Denis Mahon’s Charitable Trust.

It is expected that ownership will then be transferred by the trust to the Art Fund, which would continue the long-term loan arrangements with the galleries where the pictures have been on display since 1997.

In line with Mahon’s wishes, recipient galleries will be required to maintain free admission and not deaccession any works from their permanent collection (not just Mahon pictures). If the Art Fund accepts this overseeing role, it is likely to want some flexibility for dealing with changing circumstances.

The recipients will be the National Gallery (25 pictures), the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (12), the National Galleries of Scotland (8), the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (6), the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery (5), the Temple Newsam House, Leeds (1) and the National Trust’s Osterley Park, west London (1).

As part of the arrangements, two payments are expected to go to the Art Fund: $1.6m from a charity linked to the Pinacoteca di Bologna and £100,000 from the British Friends of the National Gallery of Ireland. These payments will come as part of a deal under which Mahon lent seven pictures to Bologna and eight to Dublin. Following his death it is expected that the Bologna loan will be converted into a bequest and the Dublin loan will continue through the British Friends (which will receive the works as a bequest).

London’s National Gallery has now also become the owner of Guercino’s The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto, 1651, valued at £4.2m. In 2006, the National Gallery agreed to pay Mahon a specified amount each year in return for ownership passing to it on his death.

The final element of Mahon’s bequest is a group of 50 drawings (47 by Guercino) that have been on loan to the Ashmolean. Some are expected to be offered in lieu of inheritance tax. The remaining drawings will go to the Art Fund, which will leave them on long-term loan to the Ashmolean.