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. 

The Art Of Collecting Well: Two Americans Make A Major Gift To France

​The Art Press has been aflutter the last few days following the announcement that Americans Spencer and Marlene Hays have donated their entire collection of French art to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. At present, 187 works have been sent to the museum, and the remaining works will be sent after they couple have passed on. Currently, the Hays own over 600 works, which decorate their homes in New York and Nashville, but as they are apparently still collecting, I suppose the final total could well be even more. It is the largest single gift by any foreign donor to a French museum since World War II.

The Hays, I was touched to read, have been married for 60 years, and came from humble beginnings in Gainesville, Texas. Mr. Hays began building his business empire as a student in the 1950’s, by selling educational books such as college preparatory exam guides, door to door. He gradually rose to own the company, along with developing business interests in sports, communications, and clothing retail.

The couple made their first trip to Paris in 1971, and immediately fell in love with French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They began collecting French art, and have slowly and carefully built an impressive collection. The cache includes a dozen works by Bonnard and nearly two dozen by Vuillard, as well as pieces by Caillebotte, Degas, Derain, Fantin-Latour, Maillol, Matisse, Modigliani, Redon, Rodin, and many others. One of the most evocative works in their collection is the lovely “Girl In White (La Princesse de Ligne)” by Paul César Helleu, pictured below.

Interesting as this collection is, there is a bigger takeaway from this story than simply a news item about these works of art going into a public collection.

Regular readers know, since I tell you often enough, that the best way to get to know about art is to plunge, in feet-first, and learn all you can about the art that you feel drawn to. As the Hays themselves have pointed out, they were amateurs when they started out. They were not people who studied art history at university, or grew up in luxurious homes filled with art. In fact, they did not grow up with any money at all, let alone near any great art museums.

Rather, they both became interested in art, and began teaching themselves all they could about it. Once their circumstances had improved to the point that they were able to purchase the kind of works that they liked, they did so carefully and quietly, rather than making splashy purchases for show. They liked what they liked because THEY liked it, whether or not anyone else did. Theirs is a collection built out of love, not out of a desire to impress the Joneses.

As a final note, what a great example the Hays have given to others, particularly in our extremely greedy and selfish age, that since you can’t take it with you, the best way to share your love for beautiful art with others is to give it away.

Art Falling Apart: Hidden Costs for the Contemporary Art Collector

As anyone with common sense is aware, much of today’s contemporary art market is populated with works that are eye-poppingly overpriced, let alone horribly clichéd. Collectors are paying astronomical sums of money to dealers and auction houses for works which were only created within the last few years, by artists whose long-term prospects remain, at best, uncertain. Such purchasers are largely engaged in a money game, hedging their bets that a piece which they purchase for $10 million today, will be worth $50 million five years from now when they re-sell it, or donate it to an art institution for a tax write-off. Yet now comes a new entity known as the Art Preservation Index, which is creating quite a buzz about a budding problem for these collectors, apart from the obvious one of their terrible taste: one which has largely been ignored or swept under the rug by the art market until recently.

Unlike more “traditional” materials – canvas, wood, stone, etc. – many contemporary works of art are created using non-traditional materials and methods. This experimentation is part of the art, as it were, but to the uninformed collector, it is also a potential minefield. Whereas an oil painting can last for centuries when properly cared for, many modern materials begin to disintegrate relatively soon after they have been employed in the creation of a work of art. The person or entity that commissioned a portrait painting or sculpture in 1700 reasonably expected that the object would last forever, or at the very least for many, many years. What is the reasonable expectation now, for a portrait or sculpture created in 2015 using non-traditional, untested materials and methods, whose long-term viability remains to be seen?  

The argument can be made that the more ephemeral nature of many pieces of contemporary art is part of the story being told by the artist. However, one wonders whether most art collectors, paying millions of dollars for objects which may well cease to exist within their own lifetimes, are being properly informed about the situation that they are getting themselves into by collecting such works. Perhaps as collectors, they are drawn to the idea of art as investment, i.e. anticipated resale profits, or as a form of liquidity. Perhaps they are drawn to the feeling of excitement and enhanced social standing which a savvy art dealer or auction house can evoke through the sale of a major work of art, and they are unconcerned with the long-term preservation of the art which they are purchasing. The rule of caveat emptor – buyer beware – applies to art sales just as it does to the sale of other goods, but of course the price tag in question is considerably more than that for a used car or a second-hand washing machine.

People have always traded in art as a commodity, just as people have always collected art because it makes them feel like they have one-upped their neighbors. Yet what has changed, in addition to the decline of standards in content and execution, is a corresponding decline in many instances of the understanding and use of materials to create works of permanence. In the past and still today, when a collector purchases a painting by Rembrandt, or a sculpture from Ancient Egypt, they anticipate that such works will endure well into the future, given that such pieces have already survived for centuries. Today, in many instances, the works accumulated by a contemporary art collector face a very uncertain future, to say nothing about the publicly-funded institutions which subsequently add these works to their permanent collections.

In art history, one of the complaints leveled against Leonardo da Vinci even during his own lifetime was his deviation from tried-and-true methods in the creation of his art, often with disastrous results. For all of his unquestioned genius, a review of Leonardo’s existing artistic output reads like a catalogue of failures: paintings that failed to stick to walls, bronzes that could not possibly be cast, projects taken up and never completed, etc. Today, we excuse the limited quantity of his artistic output, by focusing on the quality of those works which he did complete.

One wonders whether, centuries from now, the same excuses will be made for many of today’s contemporary artists, whose materials are often even more unstable than those employed by Leonardo, and whose work rarely if ever even begins to approach his in terms of technical study, masterful composition, and sensitivity of content.

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"The Last Supper" (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci