Rich, Gorgeous, Sometimes Frustrated

James Fenton, a poet and essayist, is a trustee of the National Gallery, London, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Recently a rare medieval English manuscript, a small book of psalms known as the Macclesfield Psalter, was bought by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge after a public appeal to raise matching funds and prevent its export to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The book, with its illuminated initials, is the work of East Anglian artists of the 1320s, a time when the art of that region was considered preeminent in Europe. It had turned up in a country house library; the Getty purchased it last June, subject to export license, for 1.7 million pounds ($3.2 million today).

The case of the Getty’s lost psalter follows fast upon that of Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks,” which the museum tried to buy from British hands in 2002. Deborah Gribbon, then the Getty’s director, said it would be “one of the most important paintings ever to come to the United States.” But when the deal was considered by the British government’s Committee for the Export of Works of Art, a stay of export was issued, which allowed the National Gallery time to raise matching funds and purchase it away from the Getty.

There is nothing personal about this. Britain is one of the many countries that restrict the export of significant works of art. Each system is different. The other day, in a Paris gallery, I was admiring a carved fragment of the choir screen of Chartres cathedral. It would have looked splendid (had I had the funds) in my sitting room. It would look splendid in the Getty. But it has already been declared a national treasure. You might buy it, but you couldn’t take it out of France.


In Britain, the export committee does not make decisions in advance. It swings into action when a sale is contracted. It is concerned only with works that have been in the country for more than 50 years, and they must be of exceptional beauty or of great scholarly or historical significance. The Macclesfield Psalter ticked all the boxes and was given a star by the committee, indicating its supreme importance. The Raphael was also starred.

But such a designation won’t guarantee that a treasure isn’t exported. The British system depends on a national institution (or in rare cases an individual who meets certain requirements) coming up with the matching funds within a certain time. In almost nine out of 10 cases in the last three years, objects valued at more than 1 million pounds that were export-stopped have in the end left the country.

The Getty’s name appears in so many of these stories because the museum often buys at the very top end of the market. If the Getty curators think a work of art is exceptional, it is not surprising that we in Britain think so too. Still, it makes sense for the Getty to have a go at bidding for the probably unobtainable, on the principle that you never know your luck. A recent Getty attempt to purchase a great Holbein altarpiece in Germany, the “Darmstadt Madonna,” was understandable, although it would have been astonishing had it succeeded.

The Getty is acknowledged to be the richest museum in the world, and there is an assumption that its money distorts the market. But the Getty has shown that it has its limits as to what it is prepared to pay; it has been outbid and perhaps out-negotiated.


Some examples: A Velasquez portrait, on loan to the Getty, was turned down by the museum as too expensive, and later was bought by the Prado (admittedly at a cheaper price). The Getty pursued a spectacular Rubens, “The Massacre of the Innocents.” But it was acquired at auction by the Canadian press baron, Lord Thomson. Last month two busts by the eccentric and fascinating 18th century Austrian sculptor F.X. Messerschmidt were sold at Sotheby’s New York. One went to a private buyer. For the better-preserved one, the Louvre paid a record $4.8 million. The estimate in the catalog had been about a tenth of that. The Getty had apparently been interested. And last year, the last Duccio painting likely to be available on the open market was purchased, in an outstanding acquisition, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met reportedly paid more than $45 million; where was the richest museum in the world?

For curators in Britain there are no foregone conclusions either. The campaign for the Macclesfield Psalter got off to a rocky start when one funding body turned down a request for a donation. But once the public actually got a look at the book, with its bizarre and humorous illustrations of wild men with faces on their rear ends, and a dog dressed as a bishop, the money materialized. It was English art. It was the English sense of humor. And the English paid to see it stay where it belongs.