If you have visited the National Galleries in London or Edinburgh recently you will probably have noticed the huge “Campaign for the Titians”.
Two paintings – Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto – by the Italian Renaissance master Tiziano Vecellio, often known as Titian, are on offer to the galleries at the “bargain” price of £100 million.
The owner of the pictures, Francis Egerton – that’s the Seventh Duke of Sutherland to you and me – has decided to “consolidate his family’s assets” by selling the paintings.
The pictures have been on constant loan to the National Galleries of Scotland along with the other 27 art works of the Bridgewater Collection, which includes works by Raphael, Poussin and Rembrandt, since 1945.
Needless to say, the collection has been preserved and protected by the galleries, at no cost to the Sutherland family, throughout the 63 years of the loan.
The duke’s generous offer goes like this. The National Galleries pay him £50 million (for Diana and Actaeon) by the end of this month, and a further £50 million (for Diana and Callisto) by 2012. If the money is raised, he will extend the loan of the remaining Bridgewater art works for 21 years.
Should the fundraising campaign fail, however, all 29 pictures will go on the open market, and possibly be sold to private buyers.
If that happens, it will be the first time since the early 19th century that many of the Bridgewater paintings have been removed from public display.
The directors of the Titian campaign feel compelled to dress this up as a philanthropic gesture, but it should be obvious to everyone that it is a piece of cultural and economic blackmail.
Egerton only came to his title (and, therefore, ownership of the pictures) eight years ago, by way of the death of a distant cousin. In 2005 the Seventh Duke’s personal wealth was estimated at £230 million.
No one with that much cash ever earned it through honest, hard graft, and the origins of Mr Egerton’s fortune are grubbier than most.
A huge proportion of his wealth is rooted in the historic land ownership of the Dukes of Sutherland, and, therefore, in the appalling crimes committed by his predecessors during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Clearances saw thousands of mainly poor tenant farmers forced from their land as the wealthy landowners replaced them with more profitable sheep.
An area of land bigger than the Netherlands was, effectively, depopulated. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland remain among the least populated parts of Europe to this day.
If ever there was an opportunity to challenge the twin obscenities of the art market and the private ownership of great art works this is it.
A man whose wealth rests on the terrible suffering of thousands of poor Highlanders forced from their land is demanding £100 million for two paintings because the art market – effectively an auction for super rich individuals, multinational companies and, occasionally, state galleries – might deliver him as much as £300 million.
However, the Campaign for the Titians has no interest in taking this opportunity.
It’s fairly obvious why. The “campaign” – which is no more than a large fundraising appeal – is led by the National Galleries, which, themselves, play the big money game of the art market.
Not only that, if they are to raise the £100 million, they need donations from wealthy individuals and big business, and they won’t do that by questioning the logic of one of capitalism’s most unregulated and irrational markets.
Socialists should support the galleries’ desire to keep the paintings on public display, free of charge. The problem is that some of the arguments being used in support of this case are highly dubious.
In particular, there’s the argument that the paintings should be “saved for the nation”. Why? The pictures are Italian. To demand that they remain in Britain is nationalist nonsense.
The principle at stake is that the paintings be displayed, in a secure environment, free to the general public, not that they be owned by one particular country.
The campaign says, in effect, that we should “shut up and pay the man”, without any reference to the origins of Egerton’s wealth.
However, a real campaign for public access to great art would demand that the duke gifts the Titians and the rest of the Bridgewater Collection to the National Galleries.
After all, Egerton and his family owe a moral debt for the crimes of the Clearances. Now would be a good time to pay it.