Wednesday 21 August 2019

Roman sculpture dismissed by British Museum

A row has broken out in the UK about the export of a piece of ancient sculpture (Patrick Sawer and Jessica Carpani , 'Roman sculpture dismissed by British Museum is 'finest' bought by New York Met in 50 years', Telegraph 5th August 2019).

An ancient Roman sculpture regarded as the "finest example” purchased by the New York Met in 50 years was exported because a British Museum expert did not think it worth saving for the nation. The expert is accused of failing to consider whether another UK museum should be offered the chance to match the sale price for the ancient puteal, or wellhead. He also failed to refer its export to the Arts Council because he considered it too heavily restored to be worth saving. The wellhead, which features Narcissus and Echo, and Hylas and the Nymphs, is Roman and dates from the second century AD. Now the Arts Council is to review its procedures following concerns that the expert assessor failed to follow the correct criteria for saving works of art for the country. The dispute began after James Charteris, 13th Earl of Wemyss, sold the sculpture to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art for an undisclosed sum last year.  Arts Council England sent the Met’s export licence application to its expert adviser on the period, Peter Higgs, a senior curator at the British Museum, to determine whether it fell under the ‘Waverley criteria’. This determines whether an export licence should be deferred to allow a UK buyer to match the price, on the grounds that the object is closely connected to national life or is of outstanding aesthetic importance and historic significance. Mr Higgs, a specialist in Hellenistic sculpture, decided the wellhead, decorated with figures from Greek mythology, failed to meet the criteria for triggering the Waverley procedures. A spokesman for the British Museum told The Art Newspaper that although the sculpture “is of fine quality, it was heavily restored in the 18th century so is not ‘outstanding’.” However, Sean Hemingway, the curator of the Met, described the piece as “remarkably well preserved, with limited restorations made”, while the New York museum's director, Max Hollein, said it was “the finest example of ancient Roman marble sculpture” it had bought in over half a century. The Arts Council has now said the sale should have in fact been referred to the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, which advises the Government on whether such pieces should be allowed out of the country. A spokesman for Arts Council England said: “The export licence was issued without referral to the reviewing committee. The expert adviser did not consider the Waverley criteria when assessing the application; he noted instead that it was unlikely that matched funds could be raised. “The requirement to assess applications for permanent export against the Waverley criteria should have been raised before the licence was issued. As a result of this incident we are reviewing our procedures.” [...]  The wellhead, which was excavated in 1797 and has been in the family since before 1853, is one of only 70 Roman wellheads to survive worldwide. The British Museum said it posed “no objection to the licence, on the basis of the Waverley Criteria” and that Mr Higgs had consulted colleagues in similar institutions for their opinions on whether a licence should be approved.  

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