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. 

​Savoring Spain: A Beautiful Painting Of St. Joseph And The Christ Child Comes To Market

We live in a time in which amateurish assemblages such as this are considered “worthy” of winning major art prizes, while childish nonsense is viewed as a “major” donation to an art museum. So let’s take a moment away from the madness to admire a beautifully painted, rather serene work of art by a great Old Master painter, which is coming up for sale tomorrow evening. While it’s not something that most of us have the space to hang on the wall, I would happily rearrange my entire house around it.

On Thursday Christie’s in London will be auctioning a private collection which, particularly if you love Spanish art as I do, will make your mouth water. The sale includes works by a number of both well-known and unknown Spanish artists, including Pedro Berruguete, Juan de Valdés Leal, and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as pieces by a number of other European and American artists. Decorative objects in the collection include things like Gothic chests, Persian carpets, Etruscan statuary, and just about everything else you would need to furnish a very well-appointed residence.

For me the highlight of the sale is a magnificent, life-sized painting of “St. Joseph and the Christ Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682), one of the greatest of all Spanish Old Master painters. In this picture we see St. Joseph holding the young Jesus by the hand, bringing Him forward for us to see. In the background is the base of a square column, while up above golden light pours through thick clouds, which are filled with little angels.

This painting is a perfect example of the Baroque art that was created during the Counter-Reformation, which sought to forge an emotional connection between viewer and subject matter. Murillo has provided a sharp contrast between the weight and solemnity of the two figures standing on terra firma, and the weightless movement of the heavenly figures floating up above. While over time the Baroque became more and more overwrought with gesticulation, ornament, and fussiness, until it eventually turned into the Rococo, here it is very dignified, while still carrying an emotional impact.

Take a moment to step back and notice the palette in this picture, and you’ll realize that the primary color in this piece is gray. Unlike in Gothic or Renaissance art, where colors were usually extremely bright and vivid, this piece is almost monochromatic. Murillo punctuates this by using a mustard gold for St. Joseph’s cloak, and a pale lavender for Jesus’ robe, but even these colors are somewhat toned down. His  artistic choices were entirely in keeping with the more reserved court dress and social etiquette that held sway during the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, when this painting was created.

The auction estimate on this painting is roughly $4-6 million, which admittedly sounds like quite a lot – well okay, it is quite a lot. However, when you consider that this pointless (if admittedly attractive) dropcloth…er, painting sold for $34 million recently, then the Murillo is really quite a bargain. Plus, no one will accidentally throw it in a corner of the garage.

Imelda And The Savior: Big Fights Afoot In The Art World

​Today I want to share with my readers a couple of stories I’ve been following in the art trade over the last few months:

The first involves former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos – she of the shoe closet of all shoe closets – and the art collection which she amassed with her late husband, President Ferdinand Marcos. When the couple went into exile in Hawaii back in the 1980’s, there was a great deal of speculation regarding what had happened to the assets they had accumulated over their decades in power in The Philippines. Among these was their art collection, which contained numerous works by Old Masters, French Impressionists, and Modernists. Some of the works were catalogued and their whereabouts known, but others had simply vanished.

Now it appears that part of the collection, including a painting by Monet, has been sitting in a warehouse in Brooklyn for years, and a fight is currently underway to decide who actually owns these works. Mrs. Marcos is still very much alive, and an elected Congresswoman in the Philippine government following her return to her home country. Other claimants to the cache include Mrs. Marcos’ former private secretary, the Philippine government, and victims’ funds who want the paintings to be sold and the profits distributed to those persecuted by the Marcos regime. This will be quite an interesting and convoluted case to watch.

The second story involves one of the lawsuits ancillary to the massive fight involving one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, and the Swiss freelance art dealer who helped him amass a seriously impressive art collection. The best overall summary I’ve read on this is a long and absolutely fascinating, well-written and well-researched piece by Sam Knight in The New Yorker back in February, which I’ve recommended to my readers previously (scroll down past my commentary on the Knoedler Gallery scandal.) I again urge you to take the time to read Knight’s piece, as it is highly both informative and a real pleasure to read.

The latest news from this particular debacle involves the prize of the Rybolovlev collection, a newly-rediscovered painting by Leonardo Da Vinci depicting Christ, in an iconographic style known as a “Salvator Mundi” or “Savior of the World”. Da Vinci paintings are extremely rare, and extremely valuable, since only about 15-20 are generally accepted by art experts to be his work. Leonardo was so experimental with his painting techniques, and so easily distracted by his many other projects, that a number of his paintings did not survive the centuries, and in any case his output was always very small. The “Salvator Mundi” is very possibly the only painting by him to remain in private hands, as all of the other works known to be by him are in museums.

In a twist to this ongoing drama, Sotheby’s has preemptively pulled the trigger on a fight between themselves, the art dealers who originally discovered the painting, and Rybolvlev’s art dealer, who sold the piece to his client at a considerable profit. I won’t even pretend to encapsulate all that is going on here, but The Times does a good job at trying to give an overall summary. Like the Marcos case, this promises to be rather a complicated affair – but it will no doubt be absolutely fascinating.