Monday, 26 October 2015

What to do with a £35m Rembrandt

The Trustees of Penrhyn Castle recently sold a Rembrandt portrait for £35m to a foreign buyer. The export license has been temporarily withheld to allow a UK institution to raise the money. More details can be found at Bendor Grosvenor’s excellent site.

If a bunch of private and wealthy individuals want to stump up £35m for the painting, by all means let them. If a bunch of charities want to, they must consider if there aren’t better uses of the money. Unless their aims are pretty much limited to “financing old estates by the purchases of assets from those estates” the chances are that there will be better uses of the money. “Better” here meaning “more closely aligned with the purposes of the charity”.

The real question is: under what circumstances can the tax-payer be rightly asked to stump up enough money to build several hundred homes for nurses and teachers, just so a canvas can go on hanging in a castle hundreds of miles from anywhere? “Sentiment” is not an acceptable answer. “Because otherwise the taxpayer would be stumping up for regional subsidies that they don’t have to now because tourism generated by the canvas” is an acceptable answer.

Art has two sources of economic value: its price to a buyer; and the NPV of the cash flows it generates as an exhibit. When art can’t be sold – as for example the Rothkos at the Tate Modern – its economic value is in its drawing power and the ability of the museum to extract money from visitors. (So those Rothkos at the Tate really aren’t worth the $200m or so that his auction prices would suggest.) If a buyer is willing to pay way more than the exhibit value, the seller is getting a good deal. I don’t know how much money Penrhyn makes, but it can’t be enough if they’re thinking about selling a Rembrandt.

The Rembrandt is worth £35m to the mystery buyer, because the buyer gets to enjoy it and whatever other benefits it brings. It is quite likely that ownership of a painting like that could lead to deals that would easily yield more than £35m. It is quite unlikely that anything like that much would gained if the painting remains in a castle in deepest Wales. It is not worth £35m to the taxpayer. Or to any kind of consortium.

But it is worth £35m of other people’s money to the Trustees of Penryhn. (Or £22.5m after tax, according to Grosvenor.) In fact, it’s worth any amount of other people’s money. Anything is. What the Trustees are really after is having their cake, the Rembrandt on the wall, and eating it, £22.5m in the bank to pay for the roof.

Nope. If they want the money, they can let the Rembrandt go to where it can do some good: the National Gallery, or the NPG. Or they could start renting it out for exhibitions and charge a decent rate for it.

But but but.... isn't the value of Art above mere grubby money? Shouldn't we keep it because Heritage and The Nation?

Art is not an essential part of our national identity, like, say, secure borders and a requirement that all dealings with British government organisations (social security, for instance) are done in English. (But I digress.) Art is, for all the attendance figures at museums and the queues of young foreign students at the Tate Modern, a minority occupation that takes a fair amount of reading, looking and changes of mind to appreciate. Also money. Art books aren’t as expensive as statistics text-books, but they aren’t cheap either. Art is not a spiritual substitute for religion, though we may get spiritual feelings from the contemplation of certain works. Neither is the mere looking at art a form of self-improvement: that comes with the discipline of learning and appreciating more. If you think that simply looking at art is improving, just examine the faces of all those young foreign students being dragged round the Tate Modern.

That's not the argument to keep the Rembrandt in the UK.  The argument is that it is more valuable at Penrhyn than it is in some mansion in Dubai or Peking. Because the setting adds, or subtracts, to the experience of seeing the painting. Old Masters make more sense in old castles than they do in new starchitect buildings.

So how about this, which I think Dr Grosvenor suggests as if it would never happen. How about we sell the Rembrandt, but it has to stay in Penrhyn? The owners can let it travel and keep the income, and they can pay the insurance as well. They get a bunch of private viewing days at the castle. And of course, they can sell it on. Under the same conditions.

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