Last month, The National Gallery announced it had succeeded in saving The Fortress of Königstein from the North by Bernardo Bellotto, from export by raising the £11.67 million purchase price from a consortium of funds, trusts, foundations and private donors. The painting, now on view in Trafalgar Square, represents an undeniable win for Britain. But the question now is when will the next such odyssey rear its head?
Time and again private sellers in the UK accept offers from foreign buyers for artworks in their collections. Only after the sale is announced are the artworks deemed to have cultural significance. So before an export licence is granted, UK museums must spring into action, desperately trying to raise the funds to match the sales price and save the works from export. Since UK sellers are not compelled to notify the government of their intent to sell important works, museums repeatedly have to play catch up and pay top prices.
One alternative would be for The National Gallery to employ a dedicated team to research what exactly is held by major, private British collectors. It could then make first offers on items of cultural significance rather than playing the waiting game. This approach could repay millions in savings on a single purchase, more than enough to finance the endeavour.
Image caption: The Fortress of Königstein from the North. About 1756-8, Bernardo Bellotto. Courtesy of The National Gallery, London.