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How the US National Gallery and Tate were beaten to Turner masterpiece

The Dark Rigi has become embroiled in murky legal waters

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Tate in London have both been outmanoeuvred by a London dealer in their attempts to buy Turner’s masterpiece, The Dark Rigi. We can reveal the story of how the picture was sold to a private buyer on the very day that a similar Turner watercolour, The Blue Rigi, fetched £5.8m at auction, a record price for a British work on paper.

The Dark Rigi, which is at the centre of the row, had been in an English private collection since 1975. Earlier this year it came onto the market, through London-based dealer Simon Dickinson. He sold it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on condition that a UK export licence was granted. The case went to the Export Reviewing Committee on 11 May. The panel decided that The Dark Rigi fell under the Waverley criteria, and that efforts should therefore be made to keep the work in Britain.

On 23 May Culture Minister David Lammy accepted the committee’s advice and deferred an export licence, allowing a UK buyer to match the price. The sum agreed with the National Gallery of Art was £2.7m, which represented the deferral price. The export licence was deferred until 22 July, and this period could have been extended until 22 November if a UK buyer came forward to make a serious attempt to raise the funds.

Tate bid

The Tate, which holds the national collection of Turner’s work, immediately decided that it would try to buy The Dark Rigi. On Friday 2 June, just over a week after the ministerial announcement, the Tate faxed its decision to the government’s Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which administers the export system for works of art.

On Monday 5 June, at 1.23 pm, MLA forwarded the Tate’s letter to Mr Dickinson. Seventeen minutes later, at 1.40pm, Mr Dickinson faxed back, saying that “the Turner had been sold to a private buyer earlier that day”, at 10am. In other words, the picture had apparently been sold after the Tate had told the authorities of its determination to acquire the work, but just a few hours before this news had been passed on to Simon Dickinson.

Meanwhile, on the same day, 5 June, Christie’s London was holding an auction which included a similar Turner watercolour, The Blue Rigi. This had been estimated to fetch “in excess of £2m”, which was not far from the £2.7m which the National Gallery of Art had agreed to pay for The Dark Rigi.

The auction began at 2pm, just 20 minutes after Mr Dickinson’s fax to MLA. When lot 53, The Blue Rigi, came up, Mr Dickinson is believed to have been among the three initial bidders. He soon dropped out, and the Turner eventually sold for far more than the estimate; it was bought for £5,832,000 (including buyers’ premium).

This meant that The Dark Rigi suddenly appeared to be much more valuable. It could even be worth around twice the £2.7m agreed just a few weeks earlier with the National Gallery of Art.

Mystery sale

This, however, is only half the story, since the circumstances surrounding the sale of The Dark Rigi remain obscure. The key question is whether Mr Dickinson’s sale to a private buyer was a normal commercial deal or “a matching offer” under the export regulations. This crucial technical point has important implications.

Under the so-called Ridley Rule, introduced by heritage secretary Nicholas Ridley in 1990, UK private buyers (as well as public collections) are entitled to buy works of art under deferral, at the recommended price. There have been relatively few cases, but one recent example is Lord Rothschild who bought a Pistrucci sculpture to exhibit at Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust house open to the public.

In the case of The Dark Rigi, the body which administers the system, the MLA, considered that Mr Dickinson’s sale to a private buyer was not under the Ridley Rule—but was a normal sale, which would mean that the export licence application submitted by the National Gallery of Art had been effectively withdrawn.

This point was made in an email to The Art Newspaper from Gerry McQuillan, head of the MLA export unit. We had asked if it was a Ridley Rule or a normal sale, and Mr McQuillan’s response was unequivocal: “MLA is confident that the sale was a normal sale” and “the licence application is treated as withdrawn.” MLA’s interpretation is also shared by the Export Reviewing Committee.

Mr Dickinson, on the other hand, is quite adamant that the sale of The Dark Rigi was a Ridley Rule sale. In an email, his assistant told us: “Mr Dickinson has asked me to confirm that it was a Ridley Rule sale under export deferral at the recommended price.”

The National Gallery of Art also believes it was a Ridley Rule sale. In a statement to The Art Newspaper, they said that “a private buyer came forward and matched the selling price, so the seller had no choice but to accept.”

Implications

If it is a Ridley sale, the new owner is required to allow public access, for a period of five years. This point was made by Mr McQuillan, who confirms that any matching offer by a UK private buyer must be “accompanied by guarantees on allowing public access, which would normally mean that it would be available in a gallery or building open to the public”. There is no suggestion that The Dark Rigi is now accessible, and under a Ridley Rule this would need to be agreed before the sale.

But if it is not a Ridley Rule sale, then Mr Dickinson may well face difficulties with the National Gallery of Art. In its statement to us, the gallery said that its offer of £2.7m had been “accepted, subject to a valid export licence”. If Washington’s offer is now no longer accepted, it is possible that this would effectively represent a breach of contract.

At the Tate, director Sir Nicholas Serota feels that his attempt to make a matching offer for the nation has been “pre-empted”. Tate could not have indicated its interest until the export licence for The Dark Rigi was deferred. It then had to consider the realistic prospects of raising £2.7m, and its letter was submitted in less than ten working days—reasonably quickly for an institution like Tate. Sir Nicholas therefore now believes that the UK export system should be reformed, so that any matching offers are considered at the end of the initial deferral period (normally two months), in order to avoid pre-emption by private buyers, who can act more quickly than institutions.

Meanwhile, in a separate move, an export licence was also deferred on 23 May on another Turner watercolour, The Lake of Lucerne (this had been bought a year ago at Sotheby’s, on 5 July 2005). The recommended price for a matching offer was £2,088,000 and the initial deferral period was due to end on 22 July. On 7 June, two days after The Blue Rigi fetched a record price at auction, the owner of The Lake of Lucerne withdrew their application.

Presumably it was realised that prices of major Turner watercolours had risen, and the owner was no longer prepared to allow a UK buyer to match the earlier price. In this case, no UK buyers had yet expressed interest, and the owner was quite within their rights to withdraw the application.

And finally, what will happen to The Blue Rigi, the record-breaker which set off these other developments? The buyer has not been identified, but they may well come from North America. If so, we can expect another export licence application for this third Turner shortly—at a price of nearly £6m.