National Gallery London and Prince of Liechtenstein’s can’t agree on Sánchez Coello painting's price

16 February 2010

The National Gallery’s attempt to buy the Prince of Liechtenstein’s Sánchez Coello painting is finding no outcome because an agreement cannot be reached on the price. Instead, Prince Hans-Adam II is willing to lend the Portrait of the Infante Don Diego (1577) to the gallery, since he wants it to be on public display and is presently unable to get a UK export licence to send it to his museum in Vienna.

The National Gallery is offering £2m, the amount originally paid for the Coello by the Prince in 2006. However, the exchange rate of the Swiss franc (the currency used in Liechtenstein) has fallen, so the sum is now the equivalent of £2.5m for the Prince, the price he is now asking for.

The National Gallery argues that as a public body it cannot pay more than the market value, which it believes is still £2m. It has assembled a funding package for this amount, with a £250,000 grant from the Art Fund and the remainder from gallery funds and supporters.

The Coello has been at the centre of a major row between Britain and Liechtenstein. Last December this led to the cancellation of the scheduled Royal Academy exhibition of Liechtenstein’s art treasures.

The problems began in September 2007, when the Portrait of the Infante Don Diego was seized during a HM Revenue & Customs investigation into export licence applications made by a leading London dealer for nine pictures from Lord Northbrook’s collection which were sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein. The investigation which took a great deal of time, caused the Prince to become increasingly frustrated that a painting legitimately acquired and paid for was being seized. Following strong protests from the Prince, the Coello was handed over to his representative in London on 10 November 2009, but it had to be kept in the UK.

By this time it was clear that the National Gallery was determined to acquire the picture, and would make a matching £2m offer when the export licence application process eventually began again which would be after a conclusion of the Revenue & Customs case.

The Prince therefore decided to resolve the matter by selling the Coello to the National Gallery now and dropping his export licence application. This move was then avoided, because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) — on advice from Revenue & Customs — told the gallery that as a government-funded body, it should not buy a painting which was among a group of works which were the subject of a criminal investigation.

The National Gallery was concerned about being blocked, and asked DCMS to reconsider its stand. On 19 January, after getting further legal advice, DCMS reversed its position, and said it would no longer oppose the purchase.

This was confirmed by DCMS to The Art Newspaper the next day: “Following the return of the Portrait of Infante Don Diego by Sánchez Coello which had been seized by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs as a part of an investigation and further clarification by the prosecuting authorities, issues preventing the sale or export of the picture are falling away. DCMS is aware that the National Gallery may wish to purchase the picture.”

At this stage there was optimism that an agreement could be reached on the price of the Coello, but later on 20 January the Prince insisted on the £2.5m figure.

However, as a sign of goodwill, he has offered the painting on loan, and discussions are now underway with the National Gallery. Although the gallery would very much like to display the Coello, questions remain over its valuation. The painting’s long-term future is also uncertain.

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