A magnificent seascape by the 19th-Century English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner has been sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum for more than $16 million, believed to be a record price for a British artist, it was announced Tuesday.
But the confirmation of the sale by the Royal Holloway College has generated a sharp dispute in art circles about the wisdom of allowing such masterpieces to leave the country--and the sale of the Turner is still dependent on the granting of an export license.
Officials at the Royal Holloway, a small college west of London affiliated with London University, said the institution needed to sell the painting to finance repairs and maintenance of its buildings, located near Windsor Castle.
"Naturally, we are sad that we have had to make the sale at all," said Holloway's principal, Prof. Norman Gowar, "but the cost of preserving Thomas Holloway's main benefaction left us with no alternative.
"The sale means that we shall be able to carry out essential work on our original buildings, which form the centerpiece of the college and are part of the national heritage."
The college was founded by Victorian industrialist Thomas Holloway in the 1880s, who bequeathed 76 works of art that have adorned the school's interior walls.
Under British regulations, masterpieces are allowed to be sold to foreign buyers only if a national buyer or institution fails to meet a fair market price. None came up with an offer for the Turner, and appeals by preservationists to the attorney general failed to stop the sale.
In an angry reaction, Sir Hugh Leggatt, secretary of a preservationist group called Heritage in Danger, declared: "London University should hang its head in shame. It is typical of what is happening in the latter half of the 20th Century."
Neil McGregor, director of London's National Gallery, warned that a dangerous precedent was being set. "British universities hold some of our finest treasures, and some have already felt pressed to explore the possibilities of sale," McGregor said. "National collections could not cope with trying to save important items for the nation."
Critics of the sale, which was arranged directly between the museum and the college without the aid of an art dealer, argued that it might lead other institutions to go against benefactors' wishes and could cause potential donors of artworks to reconsider their gifts.
The Turner, painted in 1844, is a seascape depicting the forces of Dutch Adm. Martin Harpertzoon van Tromp, who led 300 Dutch ships up the English Channel in 1652 to defeat the British navy. Measuring 36-by-48 inches, it has the unwieldy title "Van Tromp Going About to Please His Masters, Ships at Sea, Getting a Good Wetting," and was painted in the same year as the artist's famous "Rain, Steam and Speed" in London's National Gallery, which some critics have called his greatest work.
In defense of the sale, Prof. Gowar said: "In the new setting, many more people will see the Turner than previously, and it will be an important ambassador for British art."
His view was echoed by John Walsh, director of the Getty, who said he was aware of the public debate over the sale and would not have attempted to buy the Turner if there had been any rival British bids. Walsh said he was delighted to get the Turner since the artist is not well represented in museums in the United States.
The previous world record price for a painting sold at auction by a British artist was paid in 1990, when John Constable's "The Lock" sold for $15.7 million to Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen Bornemisza, a Swiss collector. The auction record for Turner is $11 million, paid in 1984 for "Seascape Folkestone."
Holloway College has said it will likely put two more masterpieces up for sale--a Gainsborough and a Constable--which are expected to fetch some $14 million together. It was not immediately clear whether the Getty would be among the bidders.
Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic in Los Angeles contributed to this report.