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.