Monday, February 27, 2012

Eminent Domain Elizabethans: State Expropriation Of Manet Painting (from

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Madame Claus, 1868

     The Ashmolean Museum is mounting a campaign to save Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, 1868, for the nation. On the advice of the Reviewing Committee, the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has extended the temporary export bar on the painting until August to give the Ashmolean time in which to raise the funds in order to acquire the painting. The painting has been sold to a foreign buyer for £28.35 million but, under a private treaty sale, with tax remission it can be purchased by an approved UK public collection at a greatly reduced price. The Ashmolean is approaching public funding bodies, trusts and private individuals, and launching a public campaign to raise the required £7.83xmillion

    Dr Christopher Brown CBE, Director of the Ashmolean, said, “This is one of the most important pictures of the 19th century which has been in this country since its sale following the artist’s death. The painting is available to public bodies approved by the Treasury at 25% of its market value. The £7.83 million, though a substantial sum to be found, is a mere fraction of the picture’s actual worth and it would therefore be an enormous disappointment if it could not be saved for the nation. The picture’s significance is reflected in its history: it was hugely admired and then bought by another great artist, John Singer Sargent, in 1884. Its purchase would, at a stroke, transform the Ashmolean’s representation of Impressionist painting.” 

John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait, 1906


     Manet was one of the greatest painters of the 19th century. During his lifetime he was controversial, but his work, though it shocked the public, was hugely admired by artists. His reputation grew rapidly in the 20th century and consequently his best works were acquired by major museums. There are now remarkably few Manets in private collections, almost all in France, and there are only a handful of important pictures by Manet in the United Kingdom – in the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute in London, as well as other works in Cardiff, Birmingham, and Glasgow. Adding to the Museum’s permanent collections and the Pissarro Family Collection, the acquisition of this masterpiece would make the Ashmolean a world-leading centre for the study of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work.


         The portrait is a preparatory study for Le Balcon (1868–9) now in the Musée d’Orsay - one of the key images of the Impressionist movement. Initially inspired by the sight of people on a balcony, during a summer spent in Boulogne-sur-Mer with his family in 1868, Le Balcon famously draws on Goya’s Majas on a Balcony painted around 1810. It is also an important example of Manet’s work from the late 1860s onwards when he began to focus his attention on his family and close friends. The portrait’s subject is Fanny Claus (1846–77), the closest friend of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff. A concert violinist and member of the first all-women string quartet, Fanny was one of Manet’s favourite sitters and a member of a close-knit group of friends who also provided the artist with models. She married the artist Pierre Prins (1838–1913), another friend of Manet’s, in 1869, but died of tuberculosis just eight years later at the age of 30. 

Edouard Manet, Le Balcon, 1868-9

If acquired by the Ashmolean the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus will be shown at a number of museums in the UK in a special exhibition. Having previously been exhibited only once since it was painted, this will be a great revelation both to the public and to Manet scholars. As a first sketch, the portrait has a spontaneous quality and a vibrant palette less evident in Le Balcon which was reworked a number of times by the artist as he refined the composition in his studio. Mademoiselle Claus reveals fascinating new information about the working methods of Edouard Manet, one of the greatest masters of modern art. 

Edouard Manet, Self-Portrait With Palette, 1879


        This article on the website caught my eye this morning, mostly because it paired the names of Edouard Manet, one of my favorite painters, with Oxford’s esteemed Ashmolean Museum.  However, when I read it and learned about the museum’s “campaign to save Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, 1868, for the nation”, it made me angry. 

    The general public usually pays very little attention to State expropriation of private property under the sanitized, clinical, and almost noble-sounding sobriquet “eminent domain.”  Eminent domain concerns are mostly the province of its unfortunate victims, their lawyers and the "compulsory takers'" lawyers. (By the way, anyone with any significant leasehold on real property should read their legal documents carefully on this point before signing.) 

     I don’t wish to overelaborate, spin this out, or ruin anyone’s day, but it is one thing (albeit a complicated one) if the State feels the desire and expresses the intention to put an essential road through privately-owned real estate by engaging in coerced taking.  But it is quite another when government abrogates a private, legal sale of personal property by a citizen (or otherwise legally authorized person) for any reason, let alone for such attenuated and specious ones as we find here.  

     I suppose I could understand – slightly – if the artwork in question were British, rather than French, or if it had been the property of a historically significant British collector, rather than a famous American painter who happened to purchase the work in Great Britain where he was then resident. Essentially, this painting’s heritage is as foreign to Britain as my own.

     I assume that the “private treaty sale, with tax remission” aspect of this horrendous exercise of State power is intended to lessen the ultimate tax consequences for the abused seller and restore some of his or her lost profit margin.  Possibly other emoluments (invitations to museum openings, blue ribbons and rosettes, fancy hors d'oeuvres) are also being offered in partial, paltry recompense.  In the end, however, the State will do what the State will do.

     Regularly reading about the totally screwed-up financial and social state of the United Kingdom today, I find it absolutely appalling that Prime Minister Cameron's government and the grabby Ashmolean director don’t feel that their priorities are totally misplaced. (Please see today's relevant Link Of The Day on this subject.)  I mean, it’s a lovely painting with an interesting history and connection to another famous Manet, but Who CaresThe painting belongs to its owners, not to the British government or people (who I hope would be in general agreement with that proposition).

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Madame Claus (detail), 1868


  1. This seemed so strange that I looked up "UK private treaty sales law". I think the news accounts don't give an accurate picture of how the law works. From what I can gather it's not an eminent domain statute. Instead, the law provides that a public institution can -- with the seller's consent -- acquire a work of art satisfying the relevant criteria on a non-taxable basis, so that the seller avoids capital gains tax, inheritance tax, and so on. Typically, the parties negotiate for a price equal to the value of the work, minus 75% of the tax that would otherwise be payable, thus effectively splitting the benefits of the tax exemption between buyer and seller. See, which gives an example of how the law is supposed to work. I don't quite understand how this squares with the Ashmolean man's comments; perhaps between the various taxes that the seller would have to pay if the picture were sold on the open market, a tax-free sale at 25% of open-market value is actually more valuable to him/her.

    Speaking of Manet and Sargent, we saw the lovely painting of Manet's mother at the Gardner on Sunday when we visited for the first time since the new wing was added on the back. Come have a look; lots of drama in the new architecture, even if it still feels very Bostonian.

  2. I would LOVE to come have a look and will. News articles, as you know, often get it wrong, especially it seems regarding law-related stories. I would imagine that goes double for tax items. I will look up the cite you provide; that scenario would make a lot more sense to me than the story that was written and appeared (in essentially the same form) in a lot of places. I have nothing against the Ashmolean, but eminent domain never fails to get my back up. Nice day here. I hope it was there also. Curtis

  3. It goes triple or quadruple for tax items. Really makes me doubt the quality of the other reporting all the time.

    In addition to a visit to Boston, let's plan on an excursion to the Ashmolean as well. In the spring time. Think I'm ready to go back to Oxford; it's all finally starting to make sense.

  4. Agreed on all points. Just trying to sort a couple of things out, which I hope get sorted soon. I have become increasingly distrustful of news reporting over the past 10-15 years or so. It's funny -- we know a lot of journalists. Curtis

  5. Outrageous that an idiot is trying to find millions for a painting thats not his while people are suffering from lack of healthcare,do I give a shit about whether this is saved for the nation-not one bit.

  6. Superchick --Thank you very much for reading this and writing to me. Please visit again. Curtis