Delighted to see that the Royal Opera House will be able to continue to display David Hockney’s famous portrait of the its former general administrator, David Webster. The painting, which was commissioned in 1971, was originally funded by donations from opera house’s staff to mark Webster’s retirement and has been housed there ever since. However, the ROH made the difficult decision to sell the painting back in July 2020 as part of an effort to stem the financial deficit brought about by Covid-19.
When the work was sold in October at Christie's for £12.8 million to a then unnamed buyer, concerns that it might be taken abroad and lost to the public domain forever more seemed sadly justified. However, the work’s purchaser has now been revealed to be David Ross, the ROH’s board of trustees’ newly appointed chair, who has confirmed that he will be returning the painting to the Opera House on long-term loan.
Sadly, the ROH is not alone in having to consider alternative ways to raise revenue in the Covid-era. The pandemic has forced many public institutions both in the UK and abroad into belt-tightening measures. Another high-profile example is the reports back in September this year that the Royal Academy was considering selling the famous Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo in order to avoid having to make job-cuts. Although the RA has since issued a statement confirming that it has ‘no intention of selling any works in its collection... It is our duty to look after our permanent collection, for current and future generations to enjoy.’
This idea of collections being for the enjoyment of ‘current and future generations’ is one reason why the path to deaccession of artworks by public institutions is so fraught with both legal and PR difficulties. This is all the more when the reason for the intended sale is financially motivated. Who could forget Northampton Borough Council’s ill-fated decision in 2014 to sell a 4000 year-old Egyptian statue from its collection, in order to fund an ambitious local refurbishment project. The Council pressed on with the sale despite furious public outcry, earning themselves heavy criticism by the Museums Authority and various other public bodies, which ultimately resulted in their museums’ accreditation being removed by the Arts Council England for a minimum period of five years.
This is not to say that museums should never be permitted to dispose of works. There can be very good grounds for deaccession. However, the preservation, development and funding of public collections will always been a highly contentious and political subject so it has to be done carefully. Museums considering divesting themselves of items in their collection should therefore ensure that they comply with the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics and Disposal Toolkit, or otherwise risk facing legal and/or regulatory sanctions and reputational damage.
The Royal Opera House is, of course, not an art museum, and would therefore not have been subject to the legal restrictions mentioned above. Nevertheless, whenever any high-profile public institution seeks to divest itself of a much-loved asset due to financial problems, emotions will always run high. This time, happily, a philanthropic private individual was able to step in and Hockney’s painting will be going back where it belongs (albeit on extended loan). Next time we might not be so lucky…
The buyer of the painting, it turns out, was David Ross, the billionaire co-founder of the British cellphone retailer Carphone Warehouse, who is also the recently elected chair of the opera house’s board of trustees. And his first act as the artwork’s new owner is to loan it right back to the performing arts institution.