Lending works of art to France is a risky business, warns curator

Written on September 3, 2010 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in IE Humanities Center

The French cannot be trusted to look after valuable works of art, according to a leading heritage expert.

Marriage at Cana by Giotto Photo: CORBIS

Josephine Oxley, a curator for English Heritage, claimed that there is reluctance to lend items to museums across the Channel because of fears over how they will be treated.

Her comments come amid growing concerns in Paris that the country's galleries are an easy target for thieves.

Interpol, the international police organisation, created a database of stolen works of art last year which showed that France and Italy were the two countries most vulnerable to art thefts.

Mrs Oxley, who is head of visitor relations at Apsley House, the first Duke of Wellington's home, said she would not be keen to see valuable items exhibited in France.

Referring to some of the house's most precious works of art, she said during a tour of the property last week: "We wouldn't lend that to the Louvre. We don't know what state we'd get it back in."

She added: "They've got a history of damaging items or putting them in a cupboard and forgetting where they've put them."

The most notorious example of a masterpiece being damaged at the Louvre was in 1992 when the canvas of Marriage at Cana by Giotto was ripped in five places while undergoing restoration.

In the past few years, a triptych by Cy Twombly, worth £1.37 million, on show at Avignon's Museum of Contemporary Art was stained by lipstick when it was kissed by a woman and Craig Kauffman's "Untitled Wall Relief" was destroyed when it fell from one of the walls in the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

More recently, Foucault's pendulum, created to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, was damaged in May after a cable snapped sending it crashing to the marble floor at the Museum of the Arts and Invention in Paris.

Five paintings by artists including Picasso and Matisse, estimated to be worth £86 million, were stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in the same month.

The thieves are believed to have entered the museum through a window during the night.

While the number of thefts from French museums has fallen from a peak of 47 in 1998, the average number of museum thefts over the last 15 years is as high as 35.

Christophe Girard, Paris's deputy mayor for culture, admitted that there are concerns over how they protect works of art from thieves.

"Museum directors have told me that they think about this every day," he said.

A spokesman for the V&A said that the museum has "an excellent relationship with a number of venues in France", but conceded that there have been two instances of works of art on loan in France being damaged in the past two years.

Varshali Patel, secretary of the UK Registrars Group – a body which helps oversee the care of collections in museums and galleries – said: "It is true that some countries are more difficult to lend to than others because there are differing standards in the level of protection.

"We've had some minor damages with our items, but that's one of the risks you take in lending items abroad.

"Some of the national galleries would have horror stories because they lend such a variety and such important pieces of work."

Clare Pardy, an underwriter for Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers fine art in England, agreed that the standard of safeguards varies from country to country, while stressing that museums in England are subject to very stringent checks before items can be insured.

Nevertheless, UK galleries have also suffered breakages from time to time. Among the paintings and sculptures that have been damaged are works by Andy Warhol and Tracey Emin.

In one case at Tate Britain, a two-year-old child managed to cross a barrier and leave hand prints on a Mark Rothko painting.

A spokesman for English Heritage said: "Josephine Oxley made a completely off-the-cuff remark within an informal situation and no weight should be attached to it."

As published in Telegraph.co.uk


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