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Is history repeating itself with the Titian Dianas?

LONDON. Martin Bailey
The two Titians of Diana, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, both 1556-59, were nearly sold at the height of World War One, when the National Gallery in London and American collector Henry Clay Frick competed to buy them. Joseph Duveen, the key intermediary, told Frick that the Titians were the greatest paintings in the world. The price asked for the pair was £420,000, an enormous sum at the time.

Most astonishing is what occurred at the National Gallery—and the extraordinary lengths it was prepared to go to in order to acquire them. Lord Curzon, the trustee who then effectively ran the museum, proposed buying both Diana paintings. Diana and Actaeon was to be kept, but Diana and Callisto would be sold on at a large profit, passing to a secret “syndicate” of the four leading Anglo-American dealers—Agnew, Colnaghi, Duveen and Knoedler.

The Art Newspaper has delved into the untold story of the 1916 Titian negotiations, combining material from archives in London, Glasgow, New York and Los Angeles.

In 1916 Frick was 66, but he was still a voracious collector, using the vast wealth he had accumulated as an industrialist. On 5 February he wrote to Lord Ellesmere’s family (who had inherited the Bridgewater collection, including major paintings by Titian, Raphael, Poussin and Rembrandt), asking if they would sell the two Titians of Diana. “I have space in my gallery which would accommodate them nicely,” he explained. Although originally Lord Ellesmere hoped to do a direct deal, cutting out commissions, both Duveen and Agnew soon came on board to act for him.

On 7 June 1916 Lord Ellesmere’s solicitor met London dealer Lockett Agnew, stating the price of £420,000 for the pair. This was an enormous sum: with the exception of Leonardo’s Benois Madonna, around 1478 (bought two years earlier by Czar Nicholas II for £310,000), no painting had ever sold for more than £117,000. (In today’s money, £420,000 represents the equivalent of over £20m.)

Duveen passed on Agnew’s news to Frick, dismissing the price as “simply outrageous” and saying that they should be able to secure the Titians for £300,000. Duveen added: “I have often told you that I consider them to be the greatest [paintings] owned by any private person in the world, but I go further and declare that in my opinion no museum possesses anything that I would prefer to these masterpieces.” He also passed on a letter from his art historian advisor Bernard Berenson, who wrote from his Florentine villa to say that they are “among the greatest on earth”.

Frick decided to offer £300,000, and Duveen passed on this news to Agnew, who, on 24 July 1916, successfully agreed a provisional sales contract with Lord Ellesmere’s solicitor. Five days later Agnew was told the deal was off, presumably because other potential buyers had been upping the stakes. Agnew was furious, commenting in a tersely worded telegram to Duveen: “owner vacillating idiot”.

The National Gallery
While Lord Ellesmere was negotiating with Frick, he was also actively pursuing a deal with the National Gallery. Three Titians were on offer: the two Diana paintings and Venus Anadyomene, around 1520, for a total of £360,000. The Venus was extremely valuable (although not worth as much as the Diana paintings), but it was a considerably better offer than that made to Frick. However, the precise financial benefit for Lord Ellesmere may well have depended on what the intermediaries would have made on the Frick and National Gallery deals.

The National Gallery trustees sought advice. Charles Ricketts, an artist and candidate for the directorship of the museum, described the opportunity to buy the Titians as on par with “the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles”. The cost of buying masterpieces would only rise, and the time would come when they would be “rated at the price of Dreadnoughts [then state-of-the-art battleships]”.

Dealer and critic Robert Ross warned at the time that in such situations the major players in the trade tended to quietly get together for their mutual benefit: “over big game there is always ‘a general understanding’ among the big dealers.”

On 8 June 1916, the day after the £420,000 offer to Frick, National Gallery trustee Lord Curzon wrote a detailed “Note on the Bridgewater Titians” for his board. Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, was a very powerful political figure, and he would become Leader of the House of Lords in December 1916. The museum’s director, Sir Charles Holroyd, had retired in April 1916 and his successor, Charles Holmes, was not appointed until August, so during the interim period Lord Curzon, as the most influential trustee, ruled supreme.

Lord Curzon made two main suggestions. First, the National Gallery should try to buy the three Titians (the two Diana paintings and the Venus), but sell on Diana and Callisto to a syndicate comprising Agnew, Colnaghi, Duveen and Knoedler. This might raise up to £50,000 or so in profit for the museum. Although Lord Curzon did not say so in his paper, the prospect of participating in a profitable syndicate would have compensated the dealers for not broking an immediate sale to Frick.

Secondly, to find the remainder of the money for the Titian purchase, the National Gallery should sell off a substantial number of its pictures. The museum was then allowed to sell paintings that had been purchased (rather than donated), and various lists were therefore quietly drawn up in 1916. Most of those to be sold were Dutch, with some Italian, and the initial selection of 36 pictures was valued at £239,000. If more was needed, Rembrandt’s Portrait of Philips Lucasz, 1635 (£25,000) and Rubens’s Drunken Silenus, around 1617-18 (£30,000), could be added.

However, Lord Curzon felt that another sell-off option would be better: sales from the Turner bequest. He suggested selling 40 oil paintings and 200 watercolours, bringing in a total of around £300,000, which would leave a surplus for future acquisitions after the Titian purchase. The problem was that selling from the Turner bequest would require a change in the law.

Five National Gallery trustees met on 22 June 1916, when Lord Curzon’s paper was presented. It was resolved that Lord Curzon and fellow trustee Lord Lansdowne should “privately see the prime minister [Herbert Henry Asquith, 1908-1916] and sound him regarding certain proposals concerning the sale of National Gallery pictures”.

On 13 September Lord Curzon reported back to trustees that the prime minister was “not unfavourable” to the proposed Parliamentary bill. It was subsequently put before the House of Lords in November. However, Lloyd-George took over as prime minister in December 1916, and the bill allowing deaccessioning never went to the Commons. For the new government, deaccessioning by the National Gallery was not a priority while World War One was being fought. Holmes, the new museum director, also does not seem to have actively pursued deaccessioning.

Frick died in 1919. Two years later his daughter Helen considered trying to fulfil his dream of buying the Titian Diana paintings. She thought of making another offer, but never did so.

In 2003, the Sutherland family sold Titian’s Venus Anadyomene to the National Gallery of Scotland (by this time the family’s main title had changed from the Earl of Ellesmere to the Duke of Sutherland). The Venus was valued at £20m, and was paid for with £11.6m in cash, along with an in lieu of inheritance tax element and a goodwill discount.

As we went to press, the 31 December deadline was fast approaching for the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland to agree to buy Diana and Actaeon for £50m, with the chance to buy Diana and Callisto for a similar sum in four years. Needless to say, the situation is now entirely different to nearly a century ago. Today the galleries would not even contemplate buying two Titians and selling one of them off. They want to keep the pair of Diana paintings on public view in Britain—and in any case both galleries are legally prohibited from deaccessioning.

The Art Newspaper is grateful for the assistance of the archives of the National Gallery, Glasgow University Library (D.S. MacColl papers), the Frick Collection and the Getty (Duveen papers supplied via Karen Serres).

Further information on the syndicate and the sell-off

The syndicate
Lord Curzon, the National Gallery’s most powerful trustee, put forward his proposal in a secret memo on 8 June 1916. He wanted the museum to buy three of the Bridgewater Titians—Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and Venus Anadyomene. Although the asking price was very high (£360,000), Lord Ellesmere “would not be actuated by patriotic considerations, but meant to obtain the largest possible price”. Lord Curzon went on:

“I would offer Lord Ellesmere a sum—say, £200,000, or £225,000, or £250,000—for the three, the payment to be spread out over a term of years, probably five or six. Then I would not merely deliberately contemplate selling the Diana and Callisto—the less attractive of the two largest canvases—after we had bought it, but I would not complete the transaction with Lord Ellesmere until I had sold it in advance to a syndicate selected by ourselves and consisting of the four most powerful dealers who have control of the American market (i.e. Agnew, Knoedler, Colnaghi, and Duveen).

“The price given by us for this picture being, on the above hypothesis, something between £70,000 and £100,000, I would ask for it from the syndicate £125,000-£150,000.

“I believe that even at this price they would find no difficulty in reselling the picture at a substantial profit to themselves (and, in order to encourage them, I would place no limit on this profit) for two reasons: (a) The purchase from the National Gallery would greatly enhance the value of the painting; (b) The value would be further appreciated by the consideration that the companion picture, as well as the Venus, had disappeared for ever from the market, and that the painting remaining to be sold had become the only available Titian of the first order in the world.”

The sell-off
Lord Curzon of the National Gallery explained in his memo that selling off Diana and Callisto would bring in a profit of £50,000 or so, but this would still mean that more needed to be raised to buy the other two. The answer was a sell off from the museum’s permanent collection:

“There are still a considerable number of pictures in the National Gallery...which could be got rid of without injury, and even with advantage...Out of the 26 Cuyps in the two galleries (National Gallery, 15; Wallace Collection, 11), it should be permissible to sell at least 3 in the National Gallery [plus 24 by Van der Velde, Ruisdael, Wouvermans and Teniers]...

“If larger sums were required, there are many among the experts (by whom the above selection has been made) who would be prepared, out of our 28 Rembrandts (National Gallery, 18; Wallace Collection, 10) to sacrifice one in the National Gallery [Portrait of Philips Lucasz]; and out of the 26 Rubens (National Gallery, 15; Wallace Collection, 11) 1 [Drunken Silenus]. In the Italian School, examples of the following masters could also, without serious detriment, be spared: L. di Credi, Crivelli, Francia, Signorelli, Lotto, Moroni...

“The public auction is the real obstacle. Two main objections at once present themselves:

a) The publicity—it might even by some be called a scandal—of offering a portion of the national collection for sale by public auction at any time, and more particularly in war time.

b) The difficulty of guaranteeing that we should obtain the desired price.

“In my view the only certain way of obtaining the latter would be by making an arrangement with the same syndicate that had purchased the Callisto to include in the total purchase a certain number of the National Gallery pictures for a fixed additional sum, leaving them to place these pictures afterwards.

“There remains only one more expedient, so far as I can see, of raising the money that we require. This is by obtaining the power to sell some of our Turner paintings and drawings...

“There are on exhibition in the National Gallery and the Tate, and on loan in the provinces, about 200 framed Turner oils, of which perhaps 40 could be spared, fetching a probable price of say £150,000... From the watercolours it should be possible to sell 200, if necessary, at a price of say £150-£200,000...I would make the sale to the same syndicate who are to buy the Titian, i.e. I would make the two transactions parts of a single bargain.”