Sophie’s Choice: The London Version

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Apotheosis of King James I/Rubens, 1630 — The National Gallery, London —  Copyright: Private Collection 2000

Want to know why fundraising skills are overtaking art historical credentials as the most important job requirement for museum directors? Check out the latest issue of The Art Newspaper, which reports that the National Gallery in London faces the possibility of losing three major works — a Titian oil, a Rubens sketch and a suite of five Poussins that have been on long term loan. The reason is the one you’d expect these days. Their owners have decided to sell them.

I tend not to anguish too much over the hyperbolic art market. If some knucklehead billionaire wants to pay $13 million for a Peter Doig canoe painting, so be it. But this is another example of how the suction of a powerful market can pull pictures right off the walls of public museums — not a good thing. The prospect that the National Gallery could raise the money to buy all the works is very slim. The owner of the Titian, Lord Halifax, has already turned down an offer of $110 million from the Gallery in hope of getting more on the private market, though apparently there have been no higher offers.

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Portrait of a Young Man/Titian, circa 1515-1520 — Photo: National Gallery, London

So the National Gallery is facing something like it’s own version of Sophie’s choice — which of its kids should it save? It appears that outgoing National Gallery Director Charles Saumarez Smith — outgoing in part to protest what he saw as insufficient government funding for his museum — has decided on the Poussins.

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Extreme Unction/Poussin
, circa 1637-1640

That still doesn’t mean he can save them. Five oils from a series that depict the Catholic sacraments, purchase of the entire set could require the National to come up with as much as $200 million. That’s a lot of fundraising, and at a bad moment. There isn’t likely to be a new a director in place at the National Gallery before next year. The Art Newspaper puts it drily. “Fundraising skills will be a key requirement.”

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