Italian Treasure, American Albatross: The Perils Of Purchasing A Pontormo

For some time now, I’ve been following an international tug of war over a striking 16th century portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (1494-1557). The painting was purchased by a prominent American art collector from a British aristocrat two years ago. Unfortunately, what has happened since then exposes why American collectors – even those collecting objects that are far less valuable – need to be wary of doing business in other countries.

Pontormo lived in Florence for most of his life, where he studied with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, among others. He’s known for his unusual religious paintings and portraiture, where his figures often have both elongated proportions, and a somewhat pensive mood that reflects his own melancholy nature. His more famous pupil Bronzino (1503-1572) took up many elements of his master’s style, and eventually became *the* society portraitist of the day. But whereas Pontormo’s portraits always seem a bit sad and introspective, Bronzino’s were all about slick self-confidence. Toward the end of his life, Pontormo produced fewer and fewer paintings, and turned in on himself to such an extent that even Bronzino couldn’t get in to see him.

Portraits by Pontormo rarely come on the market, as there are only about a dozen plus in existence, and most of these are in Italian museums. This particular image of Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni disappeared sometime in the 18th century, but was rediscovered by an art expert back in 2008. It had been purchased by the 3rd Earl of Caledon in 1825 and passed down through his family, who had no idea what they had. The painting was loaned to the National Gallery in London, until the 7th Earl decided to sell his newly-discovered treasure. In 2015, it was purchased by American hedge fund executive J. Tomlinson Hill of Blackstone Group, for somewhat over £30 million.

Yet despite the fact that Mr. Hill is now the rightful owner of this Pontormo, matters have conspired to prevent him from doing what he wants with his property.

To begin with, Mr. Hill cannot take his painting back to the U.S., without first obtaining an art export license from the British government. This is an issue faced by American collectors around the world, not just in Britain, and not just among those with Mr. Hill’s means at their disposal. Age and value are both considerations, but in the UK, art created as recently as 1967 may require an export license, if you want to bring it back to the States.

Even if you apply for an art export license however, while you are waiting to hear if it will be approved by the British government, a British museum has the right to attempt to purchase the object from you for the price you paid for it. You don’t have to sell, but then there’s no telling what might happen to your request for an export license, either. It puts the art collector into something between a rock and a hard place.

The fact that you might be able to get your money back seems like a good option. Unfortunately for Mr. Hill, the value of the pound has declined significantly since he bought the painting in 2015 and began his long wait for a decision regarding his export license. As a result, he could lose millions of dollars if he‘s forced to sell the painting to a British art museum today.

To me, there’s something rather illogical about this situation, and it should give Americans pause before purchasing art or antiques abroad.

What, exactly, have the Brits prevented from leaving their country that’s so vitally important to their national heritage? To begin with, they didn’t even know this painting existed until recently. It isn’t as if Mr. Hill purchased a statue which stood on the façade of one of the countless cathedrals that the British stole from the Catholic church, or that he managed to pick up the bed that Princess (Alexandrina) Victoria was sleeping in at Kensington Palace when she learned that William IV had died and she was now Queen.

In fact, this painting has absolutely nothing to do with Britain whatsoever, other than the historical accident of its being located there. Pontormo was not a British artist. The subject of this painting was not a British person. The art was not even created for a British collector.

At some point in the past, someone stole or purchased this painting in Italy, and it somehow ended up being resold to a collector in the UK. It lay completely forgotten and unnoticed in the private home of a British noble family for nearly two centuries, until it was temporarily loaned to a public museum a few years ago. That, in sum, is the full extent of this painting’s tenuous connection to the British people, whose tax dollars were supposed to go toward purchasing it for a public museum.

Now granted, giving a country the chance to hold on to its cultural heritage is better than the alternative, for there are many objects in our museums – including British ones – which were stolen from other countries in order to enrich individual and national collections. However a reasonable person would conclude that there’s a difference between denying an export license for, say, a George Stubbs painting of a British racehorse, or a Hans Holbein portrait of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and denying an export license for a work of art which has no real connection to Britain at all. I find it difficult to fathom the argument that somehow a British museum or collector has a greater moral right to purchase this painting than does an American.

The latest news on this debacle is that Mr. Hill’s application for an export license has just been denied, and he’s also turned down the UK National Gallery’s offer to purchase the painting. He could of course try for another export license in about ten years, but that possibility seem unlikely to succeed. And I doubt very much that he would want to go through this hassle all over again a decade from now, particularly since this very rare work of art isn’t going to be getting any less valuable in the interim.

Instead of obtaining a jewel for his art collection, and one which, given his years of philanthropic support of American museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, would likely have gone to an American institution at some point in the future, Mr. Hill has now found himself with something of an albatross – albeit a very beautiful one. 

This Friday: Experience High “Fidelity” In DC

​If you follow me on social media, you know that I often comment on how wonderful the music is at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital. The taste and talent of the musicians, as well as the superb acoustics of the building, are a combination that few churches in Washington can match. Now, those of you who might not have the time or inclination to join us on Sunday mornings, have an opportunity to hear and see what I’m talking about for yourselves.

This Friday, February 17th at 7:30 pm at St. Stephen’s, soprano Grace Srinivasan – who is also our cantor at St. Stephen’s – and harpsichordist Paula Maust will be performing a program of Baroque music entitled “In Pursuit Of Fidelity”, featuring music by Henry Purcell, Domenico Scarlatti, and others. The church is located at 2436 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Streets NW, just a few blocks from the Foggy Bottom Metro station. A free will offering will be collected to support the music at St. Stephen’s.

The ladies are co-founders of Musica Spira (“Music Breathes”), an ensemble which brings music of the Baroque past to new audiences in the present, in order to show its continued relevance to today. Grace has a lovely, clear voice, as you can hear, and Paula is a sensitive, thoughtful performer, such as in this performance.  As both are Peabody Conservatory alumni with extensive experience on stage, you can be assured that this is going to be a high quality performance.

What’s more, anyone who has ever visited St. Stephen’s remarks on both the elegant, cool simplicity and amazing acoustics inside the church, thanks to the swooping parabolic arches that define the interior. So for those of you who appreciate architecture as well as music, this concert experience will be worth your time as well. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience, do take a moment to come over and say hello!

Lucy Worsley: An Appreciation

Most people spend their lunch hours…well, eating lunch, I suppose. I don’t normally have time to take an hour, as it happens, and while I do manage to eat at some point, I tend to spend my midday repast watching documentaries online. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been delighted by several television programs hosted by British historian Lucy Worsley. Dr. Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable institution that runs and maintains several famous royal residences in Britain, including Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London.

A television documentary charting the origins of the palace of Versailles, or the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, might seem the sort of thing that only a real history nerd could love, and I make no apologies for being just that sort of nerd. Yet Dr. Worsley is not the sort of dry, boring history professor that one might expect to tackle such subjects. She’s smart, sassy, and just a tiny bit saucy, so that you never quite know what she is going to do next.

Take “If Walls Could Talk”, a four-part series about the domestic history of the English home. Each episode tackles a different room of the house: living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Dr. Worsley traces the development of each room from the Middle Ages up to the present day, and during the course of her journey she not only educates the viewer, she manages to make him laugh as well.

In “The Bedroom” for example, I learnt the origin of a number of common phrases in English whose origins I never stopped to question before, such as “hitting the hay” or “sleep tight”. We get to see what went into the construction of a bed from the Tudor period, as well as some of the bizarre nighttime rituals which our forbearers engaged in to try to keep both critters and evil spirits away, when they turned in for the night. In order to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a rather dry presentation of facts from becoming dull however, Dr. Worsely plays dress-up, and goes about doing some rather unusual things.

In “The Bathroom”, in order to demonstrate the bizarre 18th century medical advice which recommended sea water as a cure-all, she dons a Georgian bathing costume, downs an atrocious-looking drink made of milk and sea water – “This tastes exactly like vomit,” she remarks, in her wonderfully unique accent, after spitting out the noxious concoction – and then plunges into a very cold and rough-looking sea. Later in the same episode, in order to demonstrate how far bathroom development had come by the Art Deco period, she checks into a suite at Claridge’s Hotel in London, gets a period makeover (including having her hair set in a Marcel wave), and shows how a glamorous film star of the 1930’s would have relaxed in a state-of-the-art luxury hotel bathroom, complete with cocktail and bubble bath.

Lest one think that this is merely history as popular entertainment, Dr. Worsley manages to bring some real historical analysis into these programs, by examining not only the motivations of the people involved, but also by looking more closely at some of the documents or objects associated with them. In her survey of the Hanoverian monarchs for example, she draws our attention to the almost hereditary problem of father-son strife that occurred during the reigns of the first four Kings George, where each father as he ascended the throne managed to alienate his son and heir into setting up his own, rival court. This allowed rival factions in Parliament to politically manipulate king and crown prince into casting their support in one direction or another, with respect to the development of policy.

In tracing the time that the Mozart and his family spent in London when the great composer was just a child prodigy, Dr. Worsley reads to us from letters which Mozart’s father Leopold wrote back to Austria, giving a foreigner’s perspective on the moreys of English society at the time. She also shows us how propaganda, published in the Georgian equivalent of the tabloid press, was used both by Mozart’s detractors, as well as by the Mozart family itself, to affect the boy genius’ career. And because she herself is a competent pianist, Dr. Worsley gets to sit down at the keyboard with musicians and musicologists, in order to look at some of the complex compositions coming from the mind of this wunderkind.

Many of Dr. Worsely’s documentaries are available to stream on YouTube, but her work can also be found through PBS and other sources. I encourage you to take the time to seek her out. You’ll not only learn a great deal, while appreciating her rather impish sense of humor, but you’ll have a great time while doing so.