21 Feb 2018

Export bar on Turner masterpiece


"Its extraordinary range and depth of colour, and typically inspired and imaginative use of light […] mark this painting out as a masterpiece, but its true greatness lies in the way Turner applies his painterly genius to transform the ruins of the famous fortress into a poetic and symbolic image as resonant then as it is today".

So said Alex Bell, Co-Chairman of Sotheby's International Old Masters Department, when "Ehrenbreitstein" by J. M. W. Turner was offered for sale at auction in July last year. It is perhaps unsurprising that Arts Minister Michael Ellis MP has recently announced a temporary export bar on the work, in the hope that a UK buyer can raise the £18 million required to prevent this "national treasure" from leaving the UK.

Sale of the work and export licence application

"Ehrenbreitstein" shows a ruined fortress on a cliff overlooking the Rhine near Koblenz, Germany. To the left is the grave of General Francois-Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a hero of the French Revolutionary Army who was immortalized in Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage". The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1835. Turner quoted from Byron's poem in the Academy's catalogue. It is the only painting Turner produced of Ehrenbreitstein in oil (rather than the usual watercolour) and served as the direct model for a reproductive engraving by John Pye.

On 7 July 2017, the painting was sold at a Sotheby's Old Masters auction to an undisclosed foreign buyer, having been widely touted as one of Turner's finest works still in private hands.

An export licence application to the Arts Council England followed (the "Application"). The Application listed the value of the work as £19,283,750 (which represented the £17 million hammer price plus fees).

Application of the Waverley Criteria

As is usual, the Application was reviewed first by an Arts Council Expert Adviser, who then referred the Application to the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest ("RCEWA"). Both the Expert Adviser and the RCEWA were required to consider whether "Ehrenbreitstein" is a national treasure according to the following criteria (known as the "Waverley Criteria"):

  • Is it so closely connected with our 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?

Following a meeting on 9 November 2017, the RCEWA concluded that the work met criteria 2 (outstanding aesthetic importance) and 3 (outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history). In its recommendation that decision on the Application be deferred, RCEWA cited:

  1. the work's outstanding significance for the study of its status as a literary landscape, affirming the Romantic association of painting and poetry (in particular the creative relationship between Turner and Byron); and
  2. as a painting made primarily for engraving.

Temporary export bar

In light of the RCEWA's recommendation, Arts Minister Michael Ellis MP announced a temporary export bar on the painting on 29 January 2018, stating:

"This rich, atmospheric painting demonstrates Turner's extraordinary skill depicting light, as well as the close relationship between painting and poetry. I very much hope that it can remain in the UK, where it can be admired and appreciated by future generations for many years to come".

The decision on the Application will be deferred initially until 28 May 2018. This deferral period is to allow time for a UK buyer to make an alternative offer to purchase the work at a "fair market price" (as recommended by the RCEWA). In this case, interested buyers will need to match the price of £18,533,750 (plus VAT of £306,750).

The deferral period may be extended for a further six months to 28 November 2018 if, by 28 May, a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the work is expressed.

There is of course a risk that no matching offers are made. In June 2017, the export deferral deadline on Parmigianino's £24.5 million painting of "The Virgin and Child with Saint Mary Magdalen and the Infant St John the Baptist" passed without any bids from UK galleries or museums.

Furthermore, even if an alternative offer is forthcoming, the seller of the work is under no obligation to accept it. Indeed, there were calls to reform the UK's export licence system when the owner of Pontormo's "Portrait of a Young Main in a Red Cap" declined a matching offer from the National Gallery due to the impact of currency fluctuations, despite the gallery having successfully raised the £30.7 million required to purchase the work.

If the seller of "Ehrenbreitstein" refuses an offer at a "fair market price" from a public body, the Application will almost certainly be rejected. Any further export licence application in respect of the same work made within 10 years of this rejection will normally be refused again without a deferral period (unless the seller can show a change in circumstances).

The art market will no doubt be watching closely to see whether "Ehrenbreitstein", painted by an artist who the Tate describes as "the most celebrated painter in England", can be saved for the nation.



Roland Foord

Roland Foord

T:  +44 20 7809 2315 M:  Email Roland | Vcard Office:  London

Danielle Maddox

Danielle Maddox
Senior associate

T:  +44 20 7809 2180 M:  Email Danielle | Vcard Office:  London

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