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National Gallery and Getty fight over Raphael

The California museum has bought the Duke of Northumberland’s “Madonna of the pinks” for $50 million

London

As the National Gallery fights to save the Raphael “Madonna of the pinks” on loan from the Duke of Northumberland for the last decade, questions are being asked about how the Getty was able to buy the painting from its owner for $50 million. Inquiries by The Art Newspaper have revealed that the sale to the Getty Museum could breach its established practice of not competing for acquisitions with UK galleries. Five years ago the Getty’s London representative John Russell explained that “we always attempt to find out whether public collections are interested [in a work] and if so we do not proceed” (The Art Newspaper, No.76, December 1997, p.32).

Last month Getty director Deborah Gribbon confirmed that this practice still applies, although with the Raphael she put the responsibility on the Duke of Northumberland. “We do ask sellers if an object has been offered to a UK national institution, but we have to abide by the seller’s wishes. That is the case here; it is an issue between the Duke of Northumberland and the National Gallery.”

What really happened then at the key meeting between the duke and gallery? The Duke of Northumberland, accompanied by his advisor, Sotheby’s chairman Henry Wyndham, called on Charles Saumarez Smith on 18 September to break the news that the Getty Museum wanted to buy the “Madonna of the pinks” for $50 million. The duke’s spokesman, Philip Gregory, told us that on this occasion “we also offered the picture to the National Gallery”.

The National Gallery, however, is adamant that it was not offered the Raphael. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Charles Saumarez Smith said: “My understanding at the meeting was that I was being informed of the sale to the Getty as a matter of courtesy. I telephoned subsequently to verify that it was not open to the gallery to make a matching offer, except through the procedure of an export deferral.” This was confirmed to The Art Newspaper by Sotheby’s, which said that Henry Wyndham had stated at the meeting that the Raphael would only be available if there was an export licence deferral.

Dr Saumarez Smith now says that he feels an “ethical anxiety” about paintings being “bought off the gallery’s walls”. There had also been a “clear understanding” on paper with the Eleventh Duke, who died in 1995, that the gallery would be offered first refusal if the Raphael was ever sold. The National Gallery is particularly upset because it was their own curator who had recognised and authenticated the masterpiece.

The “Madonna of the pinks”, dating from 1507-8, had been bought in Rome in 1853 by the Fourth Duke of Northumberland for £2,500, from the collection of Italian painter Vincenzo Camuccini. Although acquired as a Raphael, it was later dismissed as a copy. Its autograph status was not accepted until 1991, after it was spotted by National Gallery curator Nicholas Penny, during a visit to Alnwick Castle. Subsequent investigations at the gallery confirmed its authenticity and in March 1992 the picture was generously offered on long-term loan, where it remains. Ownership rests with the trustees of the Tenth Duke of Northumberland Wills Trust.

It was just over a year ago that the Twelfth Duke began discussions with the Getty Museum about a sale. These negotiations, through Sotheby’s, were intensified after the Getty’s failure to buy Rubens’s “Massacre of the Innocents”, which sold at auction for £49.5 million in July. A price of $50 million was subsequently agreed for the Raphael. Although the panel is small (29 x 23 cm), it is the sort of masterpiece which only comes up for sale very occasionally.

An export licence application has now been submitted. It is virtually certain that the licence will be deferred, because of the importance of the picture and its long presence in a UK collection. The deferral would probably initially be for three months, but this could then be extended for a further three months. Getty director Ms Gribbon says that she fully accepts the UK export licence system and the opportunity this will give the National Gallery to match the price. She also stresses that the Getty retains cordial relations with the London gallery.

Although the National Gallery already owns nine Raphaels, it argues that “no more appropriate context could be imagined for this jewel-like masterpiece, which has become one of the best-loved paintings among visitors.” Dr Penny, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, accepts that the picture would be greatly appreciated among the Getty’s Old Masters, but says that “the chief reason for wanting the painting in London would be that it is of much more value as part of a group of Raphaels than as an isolated masterpiece by the artist.”

The challenge now will be for the National Gallery to raise the funds. Although the Getty Museum has bought the picture for $50 million, subject to an export licence, the cost to the National Gallery would be £29 million, because of tax advantages to the duke. It would only be possible for the gallery to contemplate raising a rescue package if there is a major award from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and discussions are already underway.

As to what will happen to the proceeds, the duke’s spokesman said they will be spent on Alnwick Castle and Syon House, with part of the money going into an endowment “to safeguard the rest of the collection and the estate for the future.” He denied reports that proceeds would be spent on the Alnwick garden, which is being improved by the Duke’s wife.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 131 December 2002