A few weeks before Christmas 2011, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest in the UK has established a temporary bar against the exportation of the unfinished painting Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus by Edouard Manet.
The Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus was an early version of Manet’s more famous work The Balcony where Mademoiselle Claus is pictured with Berthe Morisot and Antoine Guillemet. The unfinished, earlier version was painted in 1868. Shortly after Manet’s death, it was purchased by John Singer Sargent in 1884. It has 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.
Many are talking about the export ban which was put in place around December 8th but there are scant few details on why this measure has been taken in the first place.
No explanation as to why the measure of preventing the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus from leaving England was put in place has been provided. No specifics have been given as to why it will cost someone the Committee hopes will raise $43.9 million American dollars to keep it there past the February 7, 2012 deadline. No disclosure has been made as to who currently has possession of the Manet painting, where it is physically housed, why it has been out of public view and why the painting appears to be changing hands in the near future.
I find it extremely curious that England has taken such a decisive measure to keep what appears to be privately owned property within its borders. The real back story here is how this will impact the private ownership of artistic treasures and antiquities in the future. 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?
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. In England, however, at the apparent behest of the nation’s influential museums, photographic copies of public domain two-dimensional works are granted a new copyright. Museums, who house numerous paintings, etchings and sketches that are in the public domain can effectively transfer the copyrights to themselves. They prohibit museum visitors from taking photographs which 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.
While I admit to being 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? 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?
Whether it’s John Singer Sargeant’s heirs or someone else who currently owns Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, why should any government agency prohibit them from selling the painting to whomever they choose? The current export bar will run until February 7th but can be extended to August if the Committee feels someone is seriously trying to raise the £28,350,000. 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 which was on the low end of the original auction estimate.
To me the real story here is why is the government taking such a drastic action to prevent a privately owned item from leaving the country. The idea that any government can delay or even prohibit a citizen or resident of that country from selling one of their possessions is something that we all should be concerned with. With the possible exception of some sort of illegal activity, it would seem that the Committee should have no authority to prohibit a transfer of ownership of the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus outside of the country regardless of how aesthetically important the painting may be.
It will be interesting to see how this turns out and whether Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus has a transfer of ownership to another private individual or becomes a part of one of England’s museum collections.
Filed under: The Famous Artists