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The future of Raphael’s "Madonna of the pinks" still hangs in the balance

A lottery grant of £11.5 million may not be enough to keep the painting at the National Gallery

The fate of Raphael’s “Madonna of the pinks” is still uncertain, even after a lottery award of £11.5 million towards the purchase was made to the National Gallery. As we went to press, UK Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell was grappling with the question of whether the National Gallery’s bid of £21 million represented a “matching offer”—or if the Duke of Northumberland’s figure of £29.5 million should be accepted. The export licence deferral was due to expire on 27 August, but it looked likely that the issue would not be resolved by then. Ms Jowell would then have to extend the deferral period for an additional few weeks.

The dispute centres around what really represents a matching offer, following the Getty Museum’s decision last year to buy the Raphael for £35 million. Initially it was assumed that a UK gallery would have to pay about £29 million, because of tax advantages that would accrue to the Duke. This figure was based on the assumption that the painting would have been recognised as an authentic Raphael in 1988, when it passed into The 10th Duke of Northumberland Wills Trust.

The “Madonna of the pinks” was only authenticated in 1991 by the then National Gallery curator Nicholas Penny, and the museum is now arguing that this was confirmed with the use of infra-red technology which had not been available three years earlier. The gallery concludes that “there is a strong probability that the painting would have been treated as a copy in 1988.” As such, it would have been worth a very small sum, possibly as little as £8,000.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery has succeeded in raising £21 million, the sum needed if its own calculations are accepted. On 22 July the Heritage Lottery awarded £11.5 million, the largest sum ever given for an art acquisition in the UK. The remaining £9.5 million has come from a variety of sources: £5 million from the American Friends of the National Gallery (essentially money from the endowment given by the late Sir Paul Getty), £400,000 from the National Art Collections Fund, £60,000 from collecting boxes in the gallery and just over £4 million from other donors.

The National Gallery has therefore formally conveyed its offer of £21 million to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to determine whether it represents a matching bid. Since it is a tax matter, Ms Jowell has sought advice from the Inland Revenue and the Treasury. The difficulty will be to reach a judgement on how much the picture would have fetched had it come onto the market in 1988.

If Ms Jowell accepts the National Gallery’s argument that it would have been regarded as a copy, the price now would be £21 million. The Duke then has three options—to accept (and receive £8.5 million less than he had anticipated), to refuse to sell and withdraw the picture from the market, or to take the matter to court and challenge the government’s ruling. With so much at stake, he is likely to opt for legal proceedings, which could be protracted. Meanwhile the painting would remain in the UK, although he might well withdraw its present loan to the National Gallery.

However, if Ms Jowell accepts the Duke’s figure of £29.5 million, then the National Gallery would find it extremely difficult to raise a further £8.5 million at short notice and the painting would almost certainly go to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Another possibility is that Ms Jowell might rule that had the picture had come up for sale in 1988, it might have been suspected of being authentic, but this would not have been provable—and the price would therefore have been somewhere between that of a copy and a fully-accepted Raphael.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that the Duchess of Northumberland has never actually seen her family’s greatest treasure. She pointed out to Observer interviewer Lynn Barber that when first married, she and her husband were living nearby, not in Alnwick Castle. Although they very frequently visited the castle, then the home of her husband’s brother, the “Madonna of the pinks” hung in a back corridor. Since the Raphael was loaned to the National Gallery in 1992 she has never gone to look at it. Ms Barber commented: “She must be one of the very few people in the country with no opinion as to whether it is worth saving.”

The Duchess is now putting all her energy into developing an ambitious public garden at Alnwick. Total costs are now estimated at £42 million and it is being run by the Alnwick Garden Trust, a charity set up with £9 million of the Duke’s family money. The Duchess admits that “it seems unbelievable that my husband sells this Raphael for exactly the same amount as I need to raise, at exactly the same time”—but she insists that the garden is being developed by her charity and it is quite unconnected to the sale of the picture.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The future of Raphael’s Madonna still hangs in the balance '