HL Deb 22 January 2003 vol 643 cc691-3

2.44 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take to preserve Britain's artistic heritage, in light of the conclusion of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art that "through a lack of funding the system has failed totally to achieve its objective".

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government already enable heritage items to be saved for the nation by means of temporary export bars and the acceptance in lieu scheme. Under the scheme, our sponsored galleries acquired works with a tax value of almost £37 million in the past five years. Museums and galleries decide how much of their grant-in-aid to devote to acquisitions. They also use self-generated income, grants from the lottery and donations for purchases.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and for information of which I was aware. Nevertheless, how does he account for the judgment, quoted in my Question, that the system is not working in spite of campaigns against the escalation of prices conducted by that admirable magazine, the Jackdaw, to which I hope all art-loving people subscribe? I have no interest to declare. Despite the admirable work of the National Art Collections Fund, the fact remains that prices have escalated beyond all bounds and the Government are unable to do anything about it. Have they no strategy to improve on that situation?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that we have substantially increased the amount of money available to our museums and art galleries. It has gone up by 17 per cent since 1997–98. We are, of course, very concerned about our arts heritage.

The noble Lord has identified the issue. The escalation in values raises enormous problems for this country. For example, the Raphael "Madonna of the Pinks" is a great work of art that is the subject of discussion and an appeal by the National Gallery, which hopes that it can retain a painting that has been on its walls for several years. It has a market value of £35 million and a bid is in from the Getty Museum in California.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, when shall we see the report of the quinquennial review being undertaken by the department into the workings of the Waverley committee, its future policy and whether any changes need to be made?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is right in thinking that we need to keep the situation under constant review. We are aware of the difficulties. He will appreciate the fact that one of the oft-canvassed solutions to the issue—that we should ensure compulsory retention in this country for the Waverley list of exceptional items of national heritage—was considered in 1992 by the then Secretary of State, David Mellor, who considered, for very good reasons, such as the damage to the art market and the problems of enforcing such a concept, that it was not practicable. Therefore, we do not see it as a potential route forward.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, has the Minister considered the fact that large resources are being given to buying those pictures? When Italy was in a low economic state, England bought all those pictures. Should they not be allowed to circulate around the world to whoever can pay for them? Why should the British taxpayer or the lottery pay to keep Italian paintings in England?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that we take pride in a whole range of artistic objects that we greatly value in this country. We are proud of the range of collections of our museums and galleries. The noble Lord is right in the obvious sense that the market in art is a free market. The issue crops up when the commodity of the arts is not in public ownership in the galleries but in private ownership, which prompts the question whether galleries should bid for it. That is where the rub is. As the noble Lord indicated, a free market operates in the world of art.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that apart from the measures he enumerated for funding purchases of works of art, one further source which has rather fallen into abeyance—if you will excuse the rather old hereditary peerage expression— is Treasury grants? Does he visualise any circumstances when, a prime work of art having failed to secure funding under the current arrangements, a Treasury grant may become appropriate?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right. The concept of the Treasury grant still exists, although it has not been employed since 1980—a reflection, I suppose, of successive Chancellors of the Exchequer being wary of such supplementary grants, particularly as the number of grants required increased so substantially. It is therefore one potential avenue; however, I leave the House to judge whether, in the case of such very highly priced items, the department would be successful in its bid to the Treasury.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, given that 90 per cent of the holdings of Britain's art galleries and museums are hidden from public view due to lack of exhibition space and funds to show them, would it not be better to spend public money on providing the opportunity to get these works of art out of the cellars rather than competing with rich galleries around the world such as the John Paul Getty?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The value of these works of art to the nation is measured by how readily they can be appreciated and viewed by the general public. That is why we have seen fit to concentrate our resources not on specific purchases and grants in aid from the Treasury and all of that, but on giving resources to the museums so that they can pursue extended policies of ensuring that the artefacts they have are put on public display.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, one of the key objectives of this council was, I believe, to see that specific British works of art were kept in this country, particularly when there were gaps in the collections of the Tate or the National Gallery. Does the Minister agree that the committee chairman was being perhaps a little pessimistic about what he has achieved? In my judgment, the committee has been very successful in seeing that certain works of art which were needed particularly to fill gaps have been kept here. Because of the time it required should elapse before an export licence was granted, there was the opportunity for the Tate, the National Gallery or the Fitzwilliam to organise a fundraising campaign that enabled the work of art to stay in this country.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the committee is perhaps selling itself short by saying that it has totally failed. After all, it has preserved 50 per cent of the artefacts that it has been concerned to preserve. Those would otherwise have gone abroad. That is not a bad record.

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