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Hand over the book, Britain, it's the Getty's

Critic's Notebook

The U.K.'s effort to prevent the export of the 15th-century Flemish 'The Deeds of Sir Gillion de Trazegnies in the Middle East' to the L.A. museum is based on flawed postwar rules linked to cultural heritage. The Getty bid on and won it fair and square in an auction.

April 11, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Lieven van Lathem, A Naval Battle; Antwerp, after 1464, from the Roman de Gillion de Trazegnies, fol. 21.
Lieven van Lathem, A Naval Battle; Antwerp, after 1464, from the Roman de… (Sotheby's / The J. Paul Getty…)

When British authorities the other day denied an export license for a 15th-century Flemish manuscript acquired last December by the J. Paul Getty Museum at a London auction, few could have been surprised.

Stopping the export of exceptional works of art from the United Kingdom is business as usual for the government's catch-all Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Why? Often, as in this particular case, for no defensible reason.

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Stopping art export has become an intellectually dishonest racket — a protectionist contrivance that is now a sad legacy of that nation's post-World War II decline, not some high-minded urge to protect Britain's artistic patrimony.

The Getty had the winning bid of 3.85 million pounds (about $5.87 million) for "The Deeds of Sir Gillion de Trazegnies in the Middle East," a 14-by-10-inch book with a storied past. Its 237 leaves feature eight half-page miniatures and 44 lavishly decorated initials painted by Lieven van Lathem in 1464.

The Getty, which holds one of America's finest collections of European illuminated manuscripts, owns a diminutive (and slightly later) prayer book commissioned for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and son of bibliophile Philip the Good, which includes numerous Van Lathem paintings. "The Deeds of Sir Gillion," painted when the artist was about 35, was made for one of Philip's courtiers as the Renaissance was taking off.

A fictional romance about a nobleman's fatal pilgrimage to the Middle East, it reveals Western perceptions of the sultan's court after the fall of Constantinople, the last remnant of the far-flung Roman Empire. Paired with the religious book, this secular manuscript is a splendid acquisition for the Getty.

At least, it will be if it goes through. Britain's three-month hold, which is renewable, is meant to provide time for someone (or ones) to match the Getty's price and keep the manuscript in the country.

The U.K. has invoked the so-called Waverley criteria, used to determine whether export should be allowed. The doctrine is named after Lord Waverley, a former member of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's war cabinet, who led a government-appointed group that concocted it. Any work of art more than 50 years old and valued above a certain amount needs a license to leave the country.

A review committee examines three criteria, any one of which is enough to put the hold in place. Is the object so closely connected with Britain's history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune? Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance? Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

Criteria two and three are a given for the great Flemish manuscript, but criterion one is not.

Since at least 1817 the book has been in the celebrated collection at Chatsworth, the ancestral estate of the rich and powerful Dukes of Devonshire, between Nottingham and Sheffield three hours north of London. (The present duke is deputy chairman of Sotheby's, the auction house that sold the manuscript in December.) But 350 years before that it was in the Burgundian Netherlands, owned by Louis de Gruuthuse (1422-92), for whom it was made.

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His son gave it to Louis XII (1462-1515), king of France.

Louis passed it on to François I (1494-1547), who kept it at his château at Blois rather than at Fontainebleau, where Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" was installed. What happened after that is not clear, but what is clear is that the manuscript is more closely connected with the history and national life of France than of Britain.

The history and national life of Britain, however, are the reasons why the Waverley criteria were drawn up in 1952. Britain was in sharp decline after World War II, partly because of the struggle to recover from wartime devastation and partly because its global colonial empire was unraveling. The island nation had been an economic powerhouse, able to compete with other, larger industrialized countries by exploiting cheap goods and raw materials from its colonies in India, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. But suddenly that advantage was disappearing.

And then, as the crisis of crumbling empire loomed, there was the dark memory of what could be called the Downton Abbey Problem.

At the start of the 20th century, the country faced a one-two punch of economic depression and the introduction of estate taxes. Newly hard-up aristocrats started to sell paintings to make fraying ends meet. First a trickle, then a flood of art began to depart Britain.

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