Hunt is on for UK buyer to save Turner painting from export

The countdown is on to find a buyer for a £10 million painting by J.M.W. Turner before it leaves the UK.

The owner of ‘Dark Rigi, the Lake of Lucerne’ (1842) by the legendary British artist bought the watercolour in 2006 and recently applied for an export licence to take the work abroad. Arts minister Rebecca Pow has temporarily barred the export of the painting stating that it “is of national importance and if it were to go abroad it would be a terrible loss to the country”.

Under the current export licensing system, the government can defer issuing an export licence for cultural goods if they are deemed to be of outstanding national significance. The deferral period enables domestic institutions, such as museums, time to raise funds to acquire the object at fair market value.

Valued at £10 million, ‘Dark Rigi’ will need to inspire a generous fundraising campaign if it is to remain in the UK. Painted after Turner’s trip to Switzerland in 1841, it is part of a series of iconic works capturing the Rigi mountain and the only one in private hands. Turner’s fondness for serialising one motif is said to have inspired artists such as Claude Monet.

Pow’s decision to temporarily bar the work from export was informed by a recommendation from the independent Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee is tasked with advising the government as to whether a cultural object intended for export is a national treasure. According to the RCEWA, ‘Dark Rigi’ is of “outstanding significance for the study of Turner’s landscapes, artistic practice and patronage”.

The temporary export bar will be lifted on 1 December 2019, but if an institution demonstrates a serious intention to raise funds to retain the work in the UK, this deadline could be extended until 1 June 2020.

In February this year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) closed its consultation on proposed reforms to the export licensing system. ‘Strengthening the Process for Retaining National Treasures’ outlined proposals to introduce a legally binding mechanism to the current system.

The mechanism would bind owners of cultural objects to follow through on their commitment to sell these objects to a museum, gallery or relevant private purchaser at an agreed fair market price. Under the current system, there is nothing beyond a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ binding the owners to sell.

DCMS is currently analysing public feedback to the consultation.

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