Stop that painting!

A painting thought to be by Peter Paul Rubens has been barred from export this week. The ban on selling it to a foreign buyer lasts until March, with the possibility of an extension, and is intended to give British museums a chance to raise the money to buy it. The committee which advises the government on which pieces of art should be barred from export must find a piece to be of high quality and to have a significant British connection, if it is to be barred. The British connection which allows this painting to qualify is that it has a wax seal on the back showing that it was in a British collection in the 1840s (it also has one showing it was in Venice in the early 1800s). Given that connection, how could Britain justify preventing the export of this painting?The fact that the committee is required to have specific reasons if it is to limit the sale of an artwork shows that value is placed in the trade of art being a free market. However, there is also great value in people getting to appreciate the art. For that reason, a plausible restriction to put on the free market of artwork would be that if the art is sufficiently good, it should be on public display. This seems to bring to the forefront the committee’s condition that the artwork must be of high quality. However, this would support a ban on the art being sold to a private buyer, not on to a buyer outside the country. Therefore, the focus shifts to the other condition: having a strong British connection.

            There seem to be two reasons which might be thought to support keeping art within a country to which it has strong connection. The first of these is the importance of art being viewed in context. It may be the best way to keep all the art of a particular artist together, allowing people to see a particular work in the context of the artist’s other works – how the artist progressed, the sketches used as a preliminary, and so on. Similarly, it may be best to keep an artist’s work with other works from a similar area, to show the influences on the artist. In addition, certain surroundings may have had a great influence on the artist. Perhaps, for example, Constable paintings should be displayed near the English countryside he painted. The condition that the art must be of high quality provides a restriction on this principle, because considering art within the right context would only in the case of high quality art be important enough to restrict the market. A second reason for keeping art in a certain country might be that it provides context for something else, which is of great value. For example, it is of great interest to people to see how Shakespeare lived, hence if he had had art on his walls, it might be important for that art to stay there.

            However, neither of the above reasons can justify the decision in the case of the lost Rubens. The first reason is not applicable because the painter himself was Flemish, while the subject was Spanish. The second cannot provide the reasoning for keeping the painting in the country either, since the restriction has nothing to do with trying to restore any particular British collection the painting was in. The hope expressed by those who made the decision is the general one that any British museum will buy it.

              An argument some people make in support of Britain keeping artwork which originates in other countries is that Britain has better facilities than some other countries. They might mean by this that the artwork will be better looked after in the UK, to prevent it from degrading. Or they might mean that it will be easier for great numbers of people to enjoy it. However the restriction on the sale of this painting does not distinguish between buyers based on their facilities for looking after and displaying the painting, but based on whether they are British or not. There is no reason to think that the potential buyers outside of the UK would be in a worse position to house the painting than those within.

            So what is the true rationale behind the ruling? Since reasons which focussed on the British connection didn’t seem plausible, it seems that what really matters is that the painting is of high quality. There is a clear reason why the government would want to keep art of high quality – because it cares more about benefiting people in the UK than outside it, and it would surely be best for people in Britain to have as much good art for them to enjoy, as close by as possible. If that is the reasoning behind such decisions however, it seems strange that the condition of having a connection with the UK is applied at all. A possible reason for that condition is the importance of seeing art in the right context – it might benefit people more if certain works of art were not in their own country, even if it meant they had to travel to see them. However, a more likely reason for that condition is that if the UK prevented all export of art, regardless of origin, it would very likely find that other countries stopped allowing it to buy any art from them. So the fact that this Rubens has been barred from export seems to indicate that the only reason that a British connection is insisted on for art being kept in the UK, is to avoid retaliation from other countries.

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One Response to Stop that painting!

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Spot and account for the differences ……

    A work thought to be by Elgar has been barred from export this week. The ban on selling it to a foreign buyer lasts until March, with the possibility of an extension, and is intended to give British conservatoires a chance to raise the money to buy it. …
    The fact that the committee is required to have specific reasons if it is to limit the sale of musical works shows that value is placed in the trade of music being a free market. However, there is also great value in people getting to appreciate the music. For that reason, a plausible restriction to put on the free market of musical works would be that if the music is sufficiently good, it should be on public display. This seems to bring to the forefront the committee’s condition that the musical work must be of high quality. However, this would support a ban on the music being sold to a private buyer, not on to a buyer outside the country. Therefore, the focus shifts to the other condition: having a strong British connection.

    There seem to be two reasons which might be thought to support keeping music within a country to which it has strong connection. The first of these is the importance of music being viewed in context. It may be the best way to keep all the music of a particular musician together, allowing people to see a particular work in the context of the musician’s other works – how the musician progressed, the sketches used as a preliminary, and so on. Similarly, it may be best to keep a musician’s work with other works from a similar area, to show the influences on the musician. In addition, certain surroundings may have had a great influence on the musician. Perhaps, for example, Elgar’s works should be played near the English countryside where he worked. The condition that the music must be of high quality provides a restriction on this principle, because considering music within the right context would only in the case of high quality music be important enough to restrict the market. A second reason for keeping music in a certain country might be that it provides context for something else, which is of great value. For example, it is of great interest to people to see how Elgar lived, hence if he had had music on his walls, it might be important for that music to stay there……..

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