U.K. is trying to thwart Getty’s $25-million Rembrandt purchase

`Rembrandt Laughing' self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Getty Museum's $25.1-million purchase of the painting in May from an owner in Britain has been held up at least three months under a U.K. law that allows institutions there to step in and keep it on British soil by matching the price.
(Rembrandt van Rijn/J. Paul Getty Museum)

This post has been corrected. Please see below for details.

The British government is once more trying to frustrate a major art purchase by the J. Paul Getty Museum, this time “Rembrandt Laughing,” a self-portrait from around 1628 in which the artist painted a young and atypically lighthearted vision of himself.

Under British law, foreigners who buy art that’s more than 50 years old and ensconced on U.K. soil can see their purchases vetoed if two conditions are met.

First, cultural authorities must deem the work to be of “special significance.” Second, a British institution must step forward to match the selling price -- in this case about $25.1 million -- to acquire it from its owner in the foreign buyer’s stead.


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Culture minister Ed Vaizy has taken the first step by freezing the export license the Getty needs to complete its purchase, the Guardian newspaper reported, and he’s hoping others will come forward to rescue the Rembrandt.

“I hope that my deferral of the export license will allow time for a buyer to … secure this exquisite painting for the nation, where it can be studied and enjoyed by all,” Vaizy said.

His action delays the export license for three months, but if a prospective British buyer surfaces and needs more time to raise the money, the deadline can be extended an additional six months.


Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum, said in a statement Wednesday that the Getty “understands and respects the export process in the U.K. We look forward to a positive outcome and the opportunity to add this exceptional painting to our collection.”

The Getty announced its purchase of “Rembrandt Laughing” from a dealer in May. The oil painting on copper is smaller than a sheet of 8-by-11-inch paper.


America’s wealthiest visual art institution has been frustrated in some of its past attempts to buy art from British owners. The Getty’s 2002 bid of $46.6 million for Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks” was short-circuited as the British government chipped in half the matching money, using funds generated by the national lottery and earmarked for the arts. A $3.2-million acquisition of an illuminated psalter was stopped in 2005.


But Britain’s economy has suffered in recent years, partly because of the failure of austerity measures that have included significant cuts in government funding for cultural institutions. That has allowed the Getty to begin a modest winning streak in attaining export licenses.

In 2011, no one stepped forward to prevent one of the Getty’s most prized recent acquisitions, the $44.9-million purchase of J.M.W. Turner’s 1839 landscape, “Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino.”
And Britain’s latest Getty-related export freeze was overcome last week when a three-month hold expired on a 15th century Flemish illuminated manuscript for which the Getty had bid about $5.8 million at auction.

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The manuscript, “Roman de Gillion de Trazegnies,” which includes eight half-page miniature paintings by Lieven van Lathem, is expected to arrive at the Getty Center this month and go on view starting Sept. 3, spokesman Ron Hartwig said.


A report by the British secretary of state for culture on export freezes enacted during 2010-11 noted that seven works that had been “`starred’ as worthy of special effort to retain” had exited the nation because no U.K. buyers had stepped forward. They included Getty’s Turner painting and canvases by Nicolas Poussin and Frans Hals valued at about $23.1 million and $11.9 million, respectively.

Hartwig said that the U.K. is not the only nation that has legal roadblocks aimed at keeping prized art on its soil, among them France, Italy and Japan, whose processes are similar, but not identical, to Britain’s.

For the record, July 18, 10:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this post had a spelling error in the title of the J.M.W. Turner painting, “Modern Rome -- Campo Vaccino,” and a typographical error that made its date incorrect.



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