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November 6, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:33pm

What Happens to Royal and Private Art Collections During Revolutions?

By Spear's

First Against the Wall

Historically, when revolutions came, private art collections were dispersed almost as quickly as their owners were dispatched, says Ivan Lindsay
THE RECENT BOOM in business at the free ports of Switzerland, Singapore and elsewhere indicates that art collectors are becoming increasingly concerned about where to keep their art. There is a sense that the freedoms available for many years can no longer be taken for granted. Poor investment returns and an increasingly hostile and changing tax situation have led to uncertainty. Previously secure tax havens such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein have started signing disclosure treaties with the UK and elsewhere. Strategies concerning where to be resident, where to keep the money, where to live and where to hang the art are now a major topic of conversation.

Although most people want to live with and enjoy their art, an increasing number of collections are entering the free ports. The best-known are in Geneva and Zurich. Geneva’s free port covers a space equivalent to 22 football pitches and is located next to the airport. It is a concrete fortress where the art is kept in rooms behind reinforced metal doors. Several art dealerships operate there and viewings for prospective clients are held in special rooms under harsh neon lighting.

Previously, the contents of these rooms were a secret, but recently the Swiss, in their new drive for transparency (while desperately trying to hang on to the US banking licences of UBS and Credit Suisse), passed the 2009 Customs Law that requires the art to be listed and declared to Swiss Customs. The result is panic for insurers, who have suddenly realised the extent of their exposure, and an exodus of art to the new free ports such as Singapore. Robert Read of leading art insurer Hiscox says: ‘The concentration of risk in just a few facilities is what really troubles us as an industry.’

New free ports are being built in Beijing and Luxembourg, but it is Singapore’s facility next to Changi Airport that is currently the leading beneficiary. It advertises itself as the most secure, modern facility with temperature-controlled storage, and reassures potential clients it has the support of the Singapore Economic Development Board, Singapore Customs, Singapore Police and the Singapore Civil Aviation Authority.

‘Revolution’ is the theme of this issue of Spear’s, and it is worth examining what might happen to art collections if it did happen. There is precedent, first in England, which had its own revolution in 1648, and in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917. All privately owned art would likely be confiscated under a forceful private redistribution of property outside of common law. In Marxist theory this is known as the ‘expropriation of expropriators (ruling classes)’ and it provided the revolutionary slogan in Russia of ‘Loot the looters’.

Titian’s Diana and Callisto the property of Louis Philippe d’Orleans until the French revolution were sold to the English

AT THE PINNACLE of English art collections sits the Royal Collection, with 7,000 paintings, 40,000 watercolours and 150,000 old master prints, as well as vast quantities of furniture, ceramics, objets d’art and tapestries. This is followed by the old aristocratic collections (Burghley, Chatsworth, Belvoir, Holkham, Wilton etc) and then those of rich foreigners, including the Germans, Swiss, Russians and Italians living in London.

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The Royal Collection doesn’t belong to the Royal Family but is vested in trust for the use of the sovereign, her successors and the nation in a complicated deal that was drawn up in the 18th century. The Royal Collection is unlikely to be sold off unless a revolutionary government is short of funds, and it would probably be placed in the National Gallery, where it could be viewed free by all.

When Cromwell seized control of Charles I’s art collection after beheading Charles, he and his token parliament rapidly concluded that the art belonged to the people, before selling it off in a series of auctions. The leading European collectors of the day, such as Cardinal Mazarin, Philip IV of Spain and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, bought the best paintings, most of which remain today in the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The collections of Arundel, Hamilton and Buckingham were rapidly sent overseas where possible. Buckingham had been assassinated in 1628 but his son managed to send sixteen chests and 200 paintings to the Netherlands in 1648, where they were sold to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm for 60,000 florins. Arundel escaped abroad with Queen Henrietta Maria with 60 cases of his artworks. He died a broken man in Parma in 1645, leaving his son and grandson fighting over what remained of his once formidable collection.

A few canny aristocrats managed to survive, such as the Earl of Northumberland, who succeeded in flourishing under Charles I, Cromwell and Charles II, but generally the art-owning classes lost their art and were executed unless they managed to flee abroad.

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon also formed part of Louis Philippe d’Orlean’s collection before the revolution

IN FRANCE IN 1789, the new ruling class consisted mainly of peasants and they rapidly swept away all traces of the hated ancien régime, including anything they perceived as having added to their status, such as their art collections. Like in England a century earlier and Russia over a century later, the aristocracy tried to send their art collections abroad, with varying success. They also fled themselves or faced execution by guillotine.

The finest collection in France at that time, and perhaps one of the finest art collections ever assembled, was that of Philippe, Duke of Orléans, which is simply known as the Orléans Collection. It passed by descent to the Duke’s great-grandson, Louis Philippe d’Orléans, whose huge gambling debts had put pressure on the collection even before the revolution. Although Louis Philippe renamed himself Philippe Egalité to ingratiate himself with the revolutionaries, they arrested him in 1793 and guillotined him on 6 November that year.

Louis Philippe’s collection was sold off in 1798 to an English syndicate consisting of the coal magnate Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater (who took a five-eighths share), Earl Gower (who took one-eighth) and the Earl of Carlisle (who took the remaining quarter) in one of the most successful art deals of all time. They paid £43,500 for 305 paintings, including works by all the most famous artists.

They auctioned off 95 of the paintings in London for £42,500 to the likes of Thomas Hope and John Julius Angerstein (who later gave his collection to the National Gallery). Having covered their costs, they divided the remaining pictures pro rata in line with their original investment, and many of these paintings remain with their descendants today at Castle Howard and on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. During the past few years, the Duke of Sutherland has sold off two Titians acquired in this deal, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callista, for £100 million.
IN RUSSIA, THE art collections of the Tsar and the aristocratic families such as the Demidovs, the Sheremetevs and the Yusupovs were confiscated and either sold off by Stalin in the 1930s, to raise cash for his ‘five-year plans’ to collectivise the Soviet economy, or placed in the Pushkin or Hermitage museums, where they remain.

Calouste Gulbenkian, the founder of the Iraq Petroleum Company, was an early buyer. Andrew Mellon, secretary of the Treasury to US presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, bought more than twenty of the finest paintings from the Soviet state in 1930-31 for $6,654,000, and these were given to the National Gallery in Washington in 1937.

Mercantile collections such as those of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were also confiscated and are the origin of most of the fine Picassos, Matisses and Gauguins in the Russian museums. In 2009, Morozov’s great-grandson, Pierre Konowaloff, launched a lawsuit to recover Morozov’s Night Café by Van Gogh, which has hung on the walls of Yale University for the past 50 years, but he is unlikely to be successful in that.

Although revolution seems unlikely, art collectors should be under no illusions that, were it ever to happen, their art would be a target, irrespective of their nationality or background; and revolutionaries have tended to find that the easiest way to deal with the owners of art they confiscate has been to execute them by axe (Charles I), guillotine (Louis XVI) or firing squad (Tsar Nicholas II).

Images © The National Gallery, London

Read more by Ivan Lindsay

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