Having bought art when their fortunes were still considerable and the prices much lower than in today's hyperinflated market, artistocrats now have a reserve of work to flog when another ceiling comes crashing down
As reported in a press release today from Sotheby's, the Duke of Devonshire is selling one of his prized Raphael drawings. But why?
The exquisite black chalk Head of An Apostle is a study for Raphael's final major work, The Transfiguration, and is expected to fetch £10-15 million. Along with two illuminated manuscripts, the total sale is priced at £17-26 million, which is no doubt conservative, given the rarity with which Raphael drawings of exceptional quality come onto the open market. Given the number in public collections, and thus unsellable, this is a wonderful opportunity.
As Spear's reported in 2010, aristocratic families are selling off their artworks to keep roofs over their heads – literally. As Ivan Lindsay wrote:
Although most owners of stately homes try to put a brave face on the situation, talking of sales in terms of reallocating capital towards income-producing assets, privately they admit that the situation is difficult. Edward Harley, president of the Historic Houses Association, which campaigns for tax breaks for its membership, says its 1,500 members are struggling to pay for ‘a maintenance backlog of £260 million, which is basically to keep the roof on and keep the properties weatherproof and watertight, and I believe the backlog is growing. Clearly it’s not a sustainable position and our research shows that a quarter of major house repairs are being funded by works of art.’
Having bought art when their fortunes were still considerable and the prices much lower than in today's hyperinflated market, artistocrats now have a reserve of work to flog when another ceiling comes crashing down (or hopefully before). Not that they can get rid of too much at once – that would depress prices.
Pictured above: Chatsworth House, seat of the Duke of Devonshire
Nevertheless, His Grace has a habit of clearing out the cupboards. In October 2010, he held the Chatsworth Attic Sale, which raised £6.5 million from items like white marble chimneypieces, Japanese lacquered tables and Maori necklaces, and he has also sold a £10 million bronze relief of Ugolino Imprisoned with His Sons and Grandsons (1549) by Pierino da Vinci.
These sales to the public are both a loss and not. If the works are on display in houses which have to be opened for the same exigencies of roofs and inheritance taxes and they go to a private collection, we are unlikely to see them again. (This is worrying for Old Masters, less so for minor paintings and all manner of objects.) On the other hand, if flogging your Raphael is the price to pay for securing the future of your stately home, which is composed of much more than a couple of prized pictures, it must be worth it.