Tate Britain’s forthcoming “Van Dyck and Britain” (17 February-17 May) exhibition was last month threatened with the possible loss of five major portraits, together worth around £50m. These are owned by the National Trust, but under an anomaly in the UK’s indemnity system, the loans will not be covered against theft. This is because they were acquired under Acceptance in Lieu arrangements.
The five portraits are a pair of Sir Robert and Lady Shirley (Petworth), a double image of the Earl of Newport and Lord Goring (Petworth), the Countess of Dorset (Knole) and a Gainsborough of the third Earl of Bristol (Ickworth).
These paintings were mainly accepted in lieu of inheritance tax in the 1950s, when they were valued at a tiny fraction of their present worth. There is a difference of roughly £50m between their original and current values. Under the government’s indemnity scheme, which effectively insures loans to public galleries in the UK, they would only be covered for their original valuations, probably under £1m.
The National Trust initially asked Tate to make up the difference, by taking commercial top-up insurance for the £50m. This would have been prohibitively expensive, and the Van Dyck exhibition would not have been financially viable. In practice, therefore, Tate would have had to withdraw loan requests for these key five works.
Following discussions, in mid-January it looked as if the National Trust would on this occasion end its insistence on commercial top-up insurance. It feels that the pictures effectively belong to the nation and should be available for loan to a major exhibition in a public gallery.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Portraits for Tate show at risk'