Old paintings

UK and France both bar exports of works they deem ‘National Treasures’

Both the Louvre and the UK government have blocked the sale and export of two paintings which they deem to be ‘national treasures’. By doing so, the Louvre and a UK museum will be given the opportunity to raise the necessary funds to purchase the respective paintings.

At the auction house Artcurial, a still-life by eighteenth-century French artist Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) titled Basket of Wild Strawberries (1761), sold to New York based dealer Adam Williams for €24.3m, a record for the artist. However, the Louvre has blocked the sale, with the museum’s director, Laurence des Cars, telling Le Figaro that she has requested for the painting to be deemed a national treasure. Under French law, this puts the sale of the painting on hold for two and a half years. A spokesperson for Artcurial has said that Williams and his client “have no problem waiting for the outcome, because they are aware of the importance of the work”. An advisory committee are planning to meet in mid-April to make a decision, and it should be noted that requests from the Louvre are almost never rejected.

Meanwhile, the UK government has temporarily banned the export of a landscape by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Ferme Normande, Été (Hattenville) (1882), which is currently on long-term loan to the Courtauld Gallery. In a statement, the UK Export Reviewing Committee for Art Council England said that the work “marks an important moment in [Cézanne’s] career as his style and use of brushstroke developed in a new direction”, and that the painting “forms part of the very important story of British taste.” The painting depicts a farmhouse in Normandy, and was acquired by textile magnate and collector, Samuel Courtauld, in 1937. The painting was then sold on to a private collector, and remained in the family. The current owner has lent the work to the Courtauld on long term loan for the past forty years, however they have not offered it as a gift. The ban on its export allows public institutions in the UK time to raise money to acquire the work, which is worth an estimated £10m. A spokesperson for the Courtauld has said that the gallery “does not acquire major paintings and is not able to mount campaigns to raise funds for the purchase of significant works of art such as this”. Christopher Barker, a member of the reviewing committee, has commented that “it would be a profound misfortune if this beguiling work could not be retained in this country.”

Both situations demonstrate the desire to hold on to national treasures, and ideally to keep them in public collections. However, the huge sums of money required to do so are hard for public institutions to raise, especially given the financial blow the pandemic has had on museums. The Louvre typically allocates 20% of their ticket sales to the acquisition budget, which normally comes in at a figure between €5m and €8m. But attendance has dropped by 70% over the past two years, which must have a significant impact on this amount. Added to this, the Louvre are also about to buy a rediscovered panel by Cimabue (c.1240-1302), The Mocking of Christ, worth €19.5m.

Whilst it may be hard for both a UK museum and the Louvre to find the money for these works, the possibility of important paintings by Chardin and Cézanne entering public institutions is exciting.

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