By using this website you agree to our Cookie policy

December 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1413

A year of gifts

As 2020 makes its unlamented exit, everyone feels the need for some good news. Museums and art galleries around the world have suffered serious financial loss as a result of the pandemic and despite encouraging messages about a vaccine for covid-19 being imminent, there will be no major upturn in their fortunes until the summer. Yet throughout the past twelve months, they have continued to fulfil one of their core obligations, to collect. The fact that their budgets are in such a parlous state has emphasised to an unprecedented degree how dependent they are for acquisitions on fiscal incentives offered to donors by governments as well as the generosity of charitable foundations and private individuals. A partial global snapshot of what can be achieved in difficult circumstances is being provided by a series of articles in this Magazine on recent museum acquisitions – last month we celebrated the achievements of the Mauritshuis, this month we publish a survey of works of art acquired for museums in the Netherlands with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt (pp.1121–32), and next month we will report on acquisitions by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

These articles publish acquisitions made over a period of five years or so, and with few exceptions do not cover the past year in any detail. However, they make clear how museum collecting, especially at the highest level, depends on a network of support from grant-giving charities, corporations and private individuals that is able to work effectively because of an encouragement to donate provided by tax concessions. In the United Kingdom, the primary scheme designed by the government to help public collections make acquisitions is Acceptance in Lieu (AIL), administered by the Arts Council, which permits important works of art, cultural objects, land and buildings to be offered in lieu of inheritance tax or estate duty. Since 2013 this concession has been supplemented by the Cultural Gifts Scheme (CGS), which allows individuals and companies to donate works of art or other cultural objects during their lifetimes for the benefit of the public in return for a tax reduction based on a set percentage of the value of the gift. The two schemes are together capped at £40 million of tax that can be offset in any financial year. In 2018–19 objects with an agreed valuation of £58.6 million were accepted, settling tax of £33.6 million. The importance of these schemes is emphasised by the fact that 86 per cent of this valuation relates to acquisitions by museums and galleries outside London.

Although it is too early for a complete picture of the benefit AIL and CGS have been to museums and galleries in Britain in 2020, some highlights have received publicity. As far as CGS is concerned, the year got off to a promising start with two important acquisitions. In January, Kate Ashbrook gifted sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Denis Mitchell together with a painting by William Scott to the Hepworth, Wakefield, and in February the dealer Sam Fogg gave an outstanding maiolica albarello, or drug jar, made in Siena c.1510–30 to the British Museum, London, in honour of Dora Thornton, a former curator of the museum’s renaissance collections (and regular contributor to this Magazine). This gift also highlighted the fact that the concession is available for companies, which can deduct twenty per cent of the value of the gift from their liability for corporation tax – a benefit that surprisingly few organisations outside the art world have made use of.

AIL has also facilitated some notable acquisitions this year. In January the National Gallery, London, was allocated through the scheme its first Divisionist painting by Camille Pissarro, Late afternoon in our meadow (1887), which had been on loan to the gallery from the estate of Janet Bronwen, Viscountess Astor, since 2017, and in February Pallant House, Chichester, received an early self-portrait by Peter Blake, Boy with paintings (1957–59) from the estate of Muriel Wilson. In May AIL was the conduit into public collections for notable works owned by the banker George Pinto (1929–2018), including a magnificent large pastel by Jean- Etienne Liotard, The Lavergne family breakfast (1754), which has been in the United Kingdom since 1755. This was allocated to the National Gallery and a pair of portraits of boys by Adriaen van Ostade was allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. In September the Courtauld Gallery, London, received through AIL an illustrated manuscript by Paul Gauguin, Avant et après (Before and After), written in 1903.

Museums and galleries also depend to a great extent on grant-giving bodies for acquisitions. These too may reflect the benefits offered by tax regimes, as in the case of the American Friends organisations that make use of the encouragement for charitable giving provided by fiscal concessions in the United States. A spectacular example of the benefit of such organisations to British collections was the gift in November to the British Museum of an example of Jasper Johns’s rare print Flags 1 (1973) by the collectors Johanna and Leslie Garfield through the American Friends of the British Museum. In November the British Library was able to acquire the Lucas Psalter, an illuminated manuscript made by the Master of Edward IV for Thomas Houchon Lucas (1460–1539), Solicitor General under Henry VII, with the help of a donation from the American Trust for the British Library.

The best-known British-based charity raising money for acquisitions is the Art Fund, which in 2020, although focusing on providing financial help for museums during the pandemic, helped the British Museum acquire a spectacular Bronze Age gold bulla or pendant found by a metal detectorist in Shropshire in 2018. Among other charities, the Friends of the National Libraries does an invaluable and too-little known job in supporting acquisitions of books and manuscripts – in 2019, for example, it made forty-seven grants worth a total of £299,486. In November of this year it helped Pembroke College, Cambridge, acquire the archive of the expressionist painter Barrie Cooke (1931–2014).

Perhaps the most memorable acquisition so far announced in 2020 is also a manuscript but this time it is a gift made by, rather than to, a collection in the United Kingdom. In November the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement announced the gift of a late-fifteenth-century Irish manuscript, The Book of Lismore, to University College Cork. In the possession of the Cavendish family and their ancestors since the 1640s, the manuscript was kept at their Irish seat, Lismore Castle, County Waterford, and more recently at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. As well as religious texts, the book contains an extraordinary variety of secular works, including the only translation in Irish of the travels of Marco Polo. Some may argue that this remarkably generous gesture has symbolic value at a time of fraught relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland occasioned by Brexit, but for the moment let us focus on good news and try to forget the shadows of a very difficult year.