Pontormo Failure Prompts Calls for Tighter UK Heritage Protection Rules

The National Gallery’s failure to match an American collector’s offer to buy Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (1530) has prompted calls for the UK’s heritage protection laws to be reformed.

Under UK heritage protection legislation the culture ministry may impose a temporary export ban on nationally significant artworks to give UK institutions the opportunity to raise funds to acquire key artworks.

Thanks to several deadline extensions, the National Gallery matched the sale price of £30 million ($37.35 million) required to keep the painting in the UK. But the painting’s owner, billionaire hedge fund manager J. Tomilson Hill, rejected the offer after the post-Brexit slump of the British pound would have resulted in the American losing over $10 million on the deal.

The artwork was loaned to the National Gallery in 2008 by the Earl of Caledon, who sold it to Hill in 2015.

In the wake of the rejection, the Art Fund, which pledged £750,000 towards the fundraiser, called for the heritage protection regulations to be tightened.

Vice chairman of Blackstone J. Tomilson Hill and his wife Janine Hill. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images.

Vice chairman of Blackstone J. Tomilson Hill and his wife Janine Hill. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images.

“Today’s news that Tom Hill, the American buyer of Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, has refused the National Gallery’s matching offer of over £30 million marks a great cultural loss to the nation,” Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar told the Guardian. “We believe the UK’s art export control system should serve our public collections more effectively than at present.”

Deuchar said that the existing regulations require greater clarity and accountability. “License applicants should be required to give a clear and legally binding commitment to abide by the rules – which they are not at present…We ask government to undertake a formal review of the process and to introduce…measures now to help better protect our nation’s most important works of art so they may remain in the UK, held in trust for current and future generations.”

Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap is one of only 15 surviving portraits by the Florentine painter and one of only a handful of pieces outside of Italy. Meanwhile, the painting remains in limbo because the UK culture ministry has refused to grant an export license.

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