At the beginning of the 20th century, significant works of art came onto the market, partly as a result of taxes that forced new generations to dispose of paintings. These works could not be acquired by public collections as prices were pushed up by wealthy American private collectors, and oils by Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Reynolds moved across the Atlantic. The Morning Post (4 January 1912) interviewed two leading experts about their thoughts, 'Mr. Charles Ricketts' and 'Mr. D. Croal Thomson'. Thomson (1855-1930) had been the first director of the Goupil Gallery, and later worked as an art dealer for Agnew, before he became the proprietor of the French Gallery. We leave aside his judgment on the matter.
As for Ricketts, what did he think? Ricketts opposed overly strict regulation. He felt that revenue from high export taxes could provide a fund for purchases (even if there was already one: the National Art Collections Fund had been founded in 1903). Moreover, the British had to grant the Americans their share of masterpieces, and owners their right to sell a picture.
|Rembrandt, 'The Mill',|
acquired from the collection of the Marquess of Lansdowne
by P.A.B Widener (1911)
[National Gallery of Art, Washington]
Mr. Charles Ricketts (*)
Mr. Charles Ricketts, the well-known artist and writer, was in favour of some legislation having for its object the restriction of the exportation of works of art which it is really desirable to retain in this country. "At the same time, I do not think," he said, "that it would be desirable to adopt such a measure as the Editto Pacca, which brought about a position in Italy that was simply intolerable. Not only did it operate greatly to the detriment of the owners of pictures, since they were unable to sell them anywhere but in one country and that country a poor one, but it made it impossible for them to lend them to foreign galleries for purposes of exhibition.
Since then the Italian law has been modified, but even now it is not altogether satisfactory. If a person wishes to dispose of a work of art abroad he must give notice to the Government, which, if it thinks proper, can purchase it at a fair price after it has been valued by experts. The trouble is that the Italian Government, like most Governments, suffers from chronic impecuniosity, and therefore, it pays when it likes, which is a great injustice of course to the seller.
What I should propose is this: that our own Government should put a substantial export duty on all acknowledged masterpieces. The money thus obtained would form a valuable fund for the purchase of other art treasures on behalf of the nation. It may be said that it would be easy for owners to set a merely nominal value on their property. Such a ruse, however, could be easily defeated by enacting that the Government should have in every case the option of purchasing any work of art at the declared valuation. This would not have the disastrous consequences of the Pecca law, or of a similar law in Greece which has practically put a stop to excavation in that country. (**)
Really, it does seem to me that the desire to keep works of art in one's own country is apt to degenerate into what I may call a dog-in-the-manger spirit. After all if pictures had always remained in the country of their origin we should not have in our galleries and museums any specimens of the great painters of Italy, Holland, France, and other countries. One would think, to judge from some comments one hears, that what we have done in the past, and are still doing at the present day, Americans have no right to do. America is a living nation, and as such is entitled to its share in the living art of the past.
As a matter of fact the dispersal of works of art is not a bad thing from one point of view. I mean that it may result in their being saved from destruction by fire. It was touch and go with the Louvre in Paris in 1871, and who knows that all the treasures which are stored up there may not be destroyed in the next French Revolution?
As regards the Americans, what they have acquired is really insignificant as compared with what we have got. What the Government ought to see is that the number of old masterpieces can never be increased, but, on the contrary, is bound to diminish in the future. It is the story of the Sibylline books over again: every one that disappears enhances the value of those which remain.
As it is the annual grant given to the National Gallery for the purchase of works of art is not sufficient to purchase, I will not say a picture like Rembrandt's 'Mill,' but even a representative work of the English or French school. And remember that, as Keats said, a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. A masterpiece of painting is not like a man-of-war which is beginning to get out of date even while it is under construction. Yet while we spend millions and millions on men-of-war we can spare only a few paltry thousands for art. We shall discover our mistake when it is too late.
In a few years time there will be no more masterpieces to buy. The prices that are bid for them nowadays offer an almost irresistible attraction even to noble and wealthy owners. Our aristocracy are not like American millionaires, whose most engrossing occupation is giving 'monkey dinners'. The owners of British broad acres have duties and responsibilities to fulfil, and nowadays the demands upon them are becoming greater and greater every day. It is to be wondered at that they listen to the voice of the tempter who offers them a fortune for a single canvas? I fancy I can hear one of them say, 'After all I did not buy the picture, and it is not indispensable to my existence. People come in in muddy boots to see it, and they say: "It is very good," or "It is not genuine." That is what I get out of it.' There is a good deal in this point of view. Certainly no one thanks him for keeping it if he does do so.
In Germany, I believe, orders are conferred on very rich men who undertake to buy particular pictures for the nation. Our Government does practically nothing. Here it seems to be assumed that our hospitals and other great public institutions must necessarily be supported by charity. To my mind such a view is appalling - it is positively indecent. With regard to the management of the National Gallery under existing circumstances I disapprove of the Trustees and Committee principle altogether. In all matters of art I believe in an autocracy, tempered by the fear, not of assassination, but of dismissal. You should put a man in power and trust him implicitly until you find it expedient to get rid of him. Burton practically had autocratic power, and he made the National Gallery what it is. Similarly in Berlin Dr. Bode has had a perfectly free hand at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum with the happiest results."
(*) Division into paragraphs was made by me and did not appear in the newspaper columns.
(**) We may assume that Ricketts's opinion about illegal exportation of ancient art from Greece and Italy would be different today.