Abstract Art|Denice Lewis
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Last call to keep £1.2m masterpiece in Britain

Rob Sharp
Sunday June 25, 2006
The Observer

A rare 14th-century artwork considered to be of 'fundamental importance' to the understanding of painting is set to leave the country, despite the government's attempts to keep it in the UK.

Naddo Ceccarelli's £1.2m Madonna and Child was bought by an unknown collector from Europe in December who then applied to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for an export license to allow it to be taken out of Britain. The department is obliged to grant the license unless an 11th-hour British buyer can be found. In April, culture minister David Lammy gave British institutions two months to express an interest in buying the painting, only one of two signed works by the Siena master. The deadline is tomorrow and no one has raised the necessary funds, so the 'rare and charming work', created in 1347, a year before the Black Death ravaged Europe, will be lost to the British public.

The news comes as the auction market, the focus of investment by new collectors from across eastern Europe, the Middle East and Far East, becomes increasingly competitive. Last week, both Christie's and Sotheby's held record-breaking auctions. Paintings by Schiele, Hockney and Modigliani have all rocketed in value. New York has seen similar scenes with the recent sale, reportedly for £73m, of Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Block-Bauer.

The boom has made it harder for British museums to raise money for important works such as Ceccarelli's. The government has recently also failed to prevent Pietro di Francesco Degli Orioli's 15th-century Adoration of the Shepherds from being taken abroad.

Ceccarelli's work, while in relatively poor condition, has been pivotal in attributing a number of other paintings to the artist, including those held in Budapest, Dresden, Florence, Siena, San Martino and the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.

Madonna and Child once formed part of the Cook collection, assembled in Victorian times at Doughty House in Richmond, south-west London, by the textiles merchant Sir Francis Cook. The collection also included work by Rubens and is considered one of the 'great 19th-century collections' of art by Christie's.

Ashmolean assistant keeper Jon Whiteley said: 'Paintings of that period are becoming very rare. Fewer and fewer are coming on to the art market and the chances of getting hold of one are diminishing. Ceccarelli's work is of enormous charm and is the kind of work many curators in national collections would be pleased to have. It's the sort of work that should be in a national collection.'

Hans Kraestner, director of the Liechtenstein Museum, which has the other signed work by the artist and unsuccessfully bid for the Madonna and Child, paid homage to its importance. He said: 'It's a valid, documented painting. Documented paintings from such time are really rare, and it's a unique situation to have one come on to the market.'

An anonymous expert hired by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: 'For the historian of art, dated works of this period are of fundamental importance for the understanding of the development of painting.'

... and if you haven't got millions, a mere £1,000 will do

US collector Ronald Lauder can afford £73m for a Gustav Klimt, but options for thriftier collectors with about £1,000 are available.

Charles Saatchi's new online gallery Your Gallery allows collectors to view the work of artists from around the world. The dealer takes no commission, which helps keep prices down. Online you will see the work of Stuckist co-founder Charles Thomson, whose Still Life with Strawberries is available for £1,000. Supermodel and poet Denice Lewis's work, which fetches up to £10,000, is also on offer.

A forthcoming series of graduate shows in London provides plenty of chances. The Royal College of Art, Camberwell Art College and Central St Martin's College of Art and Design all have exhibitions. Another possibility is to visit Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery on London's Brick Lane, a large-selling group show for graduate artists in June and July. The Royal College's Liam O'Connor, who will exhibit at the Communication, Art and Design second-year show which started on Friday at Kensington Gore, is selling charcoal drawings for £750. Adam Simpson, another rising college star, is selling limited edition digital prints of the Best of All Possible Worlds for £275 and £360.

Susanna Beaumont, owner of the Edinburgh art gallery Doggerfisher, which specializes in young artists, said she would use £1,000 to buy a work by the Scottish artist Tony Swain. His cheapest work, Fad Admired, Fad Advanced, is on the market for £1,000.

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