Significant developments on three of the stories we’ve been watching closely of late appeared in the news this week: Firstly, that the deferral on an export licence for the Sekhemka Statue has now been lifted, so it will almost certainly be leaving these shores before too long. Secondly, that pieces from the Gurlitt art hoard are set to be exhibited by galleries in Bern and Bonn later this year; and thirdly, that Rembrandt’s Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, only recently under threat of export from the UK, is being loaned to the National Museum Cardiff, and went on public display this week.
Three completely unrelated stories at first glance, but bound by a common theme about public access to art, and ‘saving’ artworks for ‘the nation’ and ‘the people’. And on this score, it’s a thumbs up for stories two and three, but a sad day for the rare Egyptian Statue, whose fortunes have been subject to a rollercoaster ride over the past year or so since its controversial sale by Northampton Borough Council for £15.76 million in 2014.
Earlier this month, there were rumours of a plan being hatched by the Egyptian Ambassador to ‘share’ the statue, with legal ownership vesting in Egypt and loans to the British Museum and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The status of any such plans remains unclear but what is certain is that the ‘serious bid’ which apparently lay behind the second extension of the export ban to 29 March has come to nothing. The huge disappointment of the ‘Save Sekhemka Action Group’ is palpable and the group’s recent press statement rails against a system it regards as ‘unfit for purpose’ and bemoans what it considers the unacceptable apathy of institutions which might have been able to help. While mournfully acknowledging “the likelihood that we will never see this wonderful statue again” the group hopes to reconstitute itself and “return to the fight”. The tenacity of its members is admirable.
Moving onto the more positive stories, it has been a long time coming, but the plan for public display of selected works from the controversial Gurlitt art collection is good news indeed – and something we were calling for as early as August 2015. The works, which include paintings by Chagall, Matisse and Picasso, were first discovered in Gurlitt’s apartment between 2012 and 2014, but progress on the restitution process has been painstaking. At least, once the planned exhibitions open later this year, the public will be able to enjoy some of these outstanding paintings while the researchers continue their provenance investigations. More importantly, the presentation of the “historically and scientifically contextualised framework” surrounding the paintings (as is promised by the Bonn and Bern museums’ managers) will both extend public awareness of the issues surrounding looting, morality and the Nazi period in general, and, it is hoped, potentially shed further light on provenance questions.
As for the Rembrandt, we celebrated the good news that an application to export it had been withdrawn last October, but it wasn’t clear at that stage exactly what this might mean for the painting’s future. There was always a possibility of further applications for temporary export, but happily, the Art Newspaper has reported this week that it will be loaned by the anonymous foreign buyer to the National Museum Cardiff for three years. There’s no gainsaying what will happen after this, and indeed, the possibility of further export applications from 2025 onwards means a potential black cloud on the horizon over the longer term. In the meantime, however, let’s count this opportunity for us all to experience the joy of another Old Master as a reason to be cheerful.