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Shadows in the Art World

An agreement has been reached to respect the patrimony of Goya’s portrait of the Marquesa de Santa Cruz and return it to Spain. That is a happy conclusion of an affair that did the commercial side of the world of art no credit.

There is not sufficient evidence to know whether Lord Wimborne should be thanked for agreeing to a $6-million offer from Spain. He has said that he just about broke even. Court records suggest otherwise, indicating that he acquired the painting three years ago for $1 million through a Swiss connection from a middleman who apparently paid only $183,600. For Lord Wimborne it was “an investment,” placed in the title of a Liberian-based corporation of his while he awaited the realization of profit. He expressed shock that anyone thought he should have doubted the validity of the export documents under which the masterpiece left Spain.

The auction house, Christie’s, where the painting was expected to fetch upwards of $10 million on Friday, also sighed with relief, some say, because its ethics had been the subject of debate in the British Parliament as the Spanish government pursued the case. Christie’s dedication to justice and a happy solution did not prevent it from pocketing a fee--the amount of which has not yet been made public.

Whatever the merits, the Goya affair demonstrates the perils of treating great works of art with all the tenderness associated with stock certificates, and the value of the growing respect for international agreements that honor efforts by nations to guard their fine arts. One can only guess where the painting might have gone after an open auction. Now it is bound for the walls of the Prado in Madrid, where it belongs.

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