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Controversy Surrounding Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus

portrait of mademoiselle claus by edouard manetThe Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus is an early version of Manet’s more famous work The Balcony. Mademoiselle Claus is joined by Berthe Morisot and Antoine Guillemet on the balcony in the later work. This unfinished, earlier version was painted in 1868. Shortly after Manet’s death, it was purchased by John Singer Sargent in 1884 and brought to England. It had only been publicly shown once in the last 100 years at the National Gallery during a retrospective of the artist’s works on the 100th anniversary of his death.

In 2011, the painting was sold, at auction, for £28.35 million. To put that number in perspective a bit, the highest recorded auction price for a work by Manet (as of January 1, 2012) is £22.4 million. This sale would have set the new highest price for a work by Manet. The painting was most likely on its way out of England. But, that’s where the story gets interesting.

Bar Against Exportation

A few weeks before Christmas 2011, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest in the UK got involved. They established a temporary bar against the exportation of the unfinished painting Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus by Eduoard Manet.

According to www.gov.uk, “The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the portrait was of outstanding aesthetic importance and of outstanding significance for the study of  French painting of the second half of the nineteenth century and in particular the work of Manet, one of the leading Impressionist painters of the period.”

The exportation bar basically makes the painting available to any British citizen for £28.35 million or any public institution for 27% of the market value set by the auction.

Private or Public Ownership of Important Works of Art

What does this say about the private ownership of artistic treasures and antiquities?

It raises the question of should any one individual be able to own and control the irreplaceable treasures or should they be housed within a museum for all to enjoy. And, why is the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus apparently being singled out for such protection? Neither the painter or the subject were British citizens. The painting was not completed on English soil. And, didn’t someone buy the painting once the gavel fell?

This bar made ripples around the world. It may have been the first bar to make worldwide headlines but it was not the first or last time a private sale was barred.

England’s Take on Art Ownership

England already has some interesting laws when it comes to works of art. In researching copyright law for The Famous Artists, I learned that England takes a somewhat unusual stance when it comes to photographs of two-dimensional works of art that have fallen into the public domain.

All of Edouard Manet’s paintings, including Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, are in the public domain in most of the world. What that usually means is that photographic copies and mechanical scans of his work can not be granted copyright protection.

England, however, at the apparent behest of the nation’s influential museums, changed their copyright laws. Photographic copies of public domain two-dimensional works are granted a new copyright. Museums, who house art that is in the public domain, can effectively transfer the copyrights to themselves. They prohibit museum visitors from taking photographs. That ensures they own both the masterpiece and the rights to the only photos taken of that masterpiece. England pretty much stands alone in what is essentially the creation of a perpetual copyright by their museums. Other countries offer similar protections but England’s laws were generally designed to fund museums rather than support artists.

Who Owns It?

I am a bit on the fence on the issue of private ownership of irreplaceable world treasures. I generally favor the free exchange of goods and services. A painter and his heirs should have every right to sell his paintings to whomever can afford them.

Should we really expect the artist and his estate to simply give their masterpieces to the state, free of charge? What if the owner of that work is not a family member? Should they too be expected to donate it to the greater good or be limited as to what they can do with it? Or should they be prohibited from selling the work to someone who resides in another country? Or should someone who competes at and wins an auction sale be told by the government that they cannot have the item they purchased?

Following the logic to the extreme, should the painting be returned to France since the painter and subject were French citizens?

The original bar ran until February 7th. It was extended in August to provide more time for the Ashmolean to raise the £7.83 million needed for a public institution to purchase the painting.

Perhaps, the bigger story here is what this whole incident says about the private ownership of works of art. Should governments be able to delay or even prohibit a citizen or resident of that country from selling one of their possessions? Should it make a difference where the item will be housed after the sale?

Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus Stays in England

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology decided to try and save Mademoiselle Claus for England. It took them eight months. With donations from 1,048 people, the museum raised the £7.83 million to purchase Manet’s painting.

While it’s not been explained in any of the articles I’ve read, I have been unable to determine how much the seller received for the painting.

Did the government contribute £20.52 million to keeping the painting in England? Or did the seller only receive 27% of the original £28.35 million price set at the auction.

No word on the identity of the original buyer.

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