British collector sought to save masterpiece

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A masterpiece by French artist Nicolas Poussin will be exported overseas unless a British buyer comes forward with a matching offer of £14 million. So says culture minister Ed Vaizey, who has placed a temporary export bar on the work in the hope that a UK buyer can be found in the time allowed.

The subject of the painting is rare and derives from Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. It depicts the moment the infant Moses trampled Pharaoh’s crown. The painting was bought by the 5th Duke of Bedford at the sale of the incomparable Orléans collection in London in 1798, and has remained at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire ever since.

Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence for the painting following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds that it was of outstanding aesthetic importance, and that it was of outstanding significance for the study of Poussin’s art.

“It would be a terrible shame if this dramatic work by Poussin was to be moved abroad permanently,” said Vaizey. “I hope that a UK buyer can be found and that the painting remains here in the UK where it can be enjoyed by the British public.”

The painting has a tremendous, albeit austere, beauty – perhaps more so than any other painting by the artist in collections accessible to the British public. Of the 30 or so paintings by Poussin in UK galleries and museums, none are quite so insistently severe in either their colouring or composition and the painting therefore offers the opportunity for additional insight into the study of the hugely influential painter dubbed “the springboard for the greatest French artists from David to Matisse”.

Aidan Weston-Lewis from the RCEWA said: “With its frieze-like composition and frozen gestures and expressions, no picture better expresses Poussin’s position as the arch-classicist of seventeenth-century European painting. It is above all in its chilly austerity, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, that its greatness lies.”

The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred for a period ending on 22 April 2014 inclusive. This period may be extended until 22 October 2014 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the painting is made at the recommended price of £14 million. Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price through the private treaty sale arrangements, where appropriate, may also be considered by Mr Vaizey. Such purchases frequently offer substantial financial benefit to a public institution wishing to acquire the item.