Getty Museum’s $44.9-million purchase of J.M.W. Turner masterpiece is final as sale clears U.K. export hurdle


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Seven months after the gavel came down at Sotheby’s in London, declaring the Getty Museum its proud buyer -- for $44.9 million –- a prized 1839 painting by J.M.W. Turner is indeed finally “sold” and headed to Brentwood, where the museum expects to display it by the end of February.

An agent for the Getty picked up the export license that seals the deal for ‘Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino’ from the British culture ministry at the opening of business Thursday, said David Bomford, the museum’s acting director, and a copy of the certificate arrived by e-mail in the middle of the night.


With that, the museum cleared a hurdle it had tripped over in failed attempts to complete past high-profile purchases from Great Britain.

Under British law, artworks of “special significance” that have been on British soil for more than 50 years can’t be sold and exported without a license -- and if a buyer surfaces in Britain who is willing to match what the foreign buyer was willing to pay, that institution or individual gets to cut in like a suitor at a dance, and walk away with the object of affection. In November, the British culture minister said the license for the Turner would be held up at least through Feb. 2, and possibly until Aug. 1, to allow a domestic purchaser time to come forward.

‘During that period, you never know whether something is going to come up; you’re waiting to see whether the decision is in your favor or not,’ Bomford said Thursday. Getty leaders’ confidence was up, he said, because in talking with colleagues at U.K. museums, they knew no rivals were emerging from that quarter.

The Getty had famously failed to take home Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks” for $46.6 million in 2002, giving way instead to the National Gallery of London, and in 2005 it lost out on a $3.2-million illuminated psalter when the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge stepped in.

But “Modern Rome” is coming, perhaps a sign that at a time of austerity in Great Britain, a domestic arts economy that’s far more reliant on government funding than in the United States could not muster the wherewithal to take the painting away from the privately and lavishly endowed Getty. In 2004, according to a BBC report, the British government anted up more than half the money to match the Getty’s bid for ‘Madonna of the Pinks,’ tapping a fund from lottery receipts that’s earmarked for cultural purposes.

Another possible factor: British museums already own excellent Turners, so it was easier to let this one go than it had been to part with a prized Raphael.


The Turner painting is still at Sotheby’s, Bomford said, and in the coming two weeks the Getty will wire its payment to the auction house and dispatch a curator to oversee packing and travel arrangements. By month’s end, the museum director said, ‘Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino’ should occupy the wall space that’s already been picked out for it in the Getty’s 19th century British gallery.

‘We’re delighted and looking forward very much to having it here,’ he said. ‘I have no doubt we will have some sort of celebration, but we want to get it here first and put it on the wall.’

Right after the auction last July, Bomford described the painting as an “acquisition [that] ranks among the greatest in the history of the Getty Museum … .Paintings by Turner rarely come to market and the absolutely flawless condition of this one makes it the work against which all other works by Turner will be judged.” Scott Schaefer, the museum’s senior curator of paintings, chimed in with the opinion that “Turner is quite simply the greatest British painter of the 19th century and occupies a unique and pivotal position in the history of art.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight said after the auction that ‘Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino,’ which had hung for 30 years in the National Galleries of Scotland, on loan from its now-former owners, the Primrose family, is ‘a … tour de force, a celebratory elegy. Probably Turner’s last work in Rome, it shows the great classical, Renaissance and Baroque powerhouse city melting into a distinctly modern atmosphere of broken color and dazzling light. Looking at it, you know the world going forward will never be the same as it had been for centuries.”


Getty Museum ready to buy J.M.W. Turner masterpiece for $44.9 million -- if Brits won’t match the price


Getty’s prized purchase to stay in England -- at least for now

-- Mike Boehm