Monday, August 02, 2010

Auction beckons for Lees's painting

This photo wasn't taken yesterday! It appeared on the front cover of the October 1986 Scottish Curler magazine and shows the interior of 2 Coates Crescent, the headquarters of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club at that time. Note what is on the back wall. It's a painting by Charles Lees which is the main news item this week!

The story is somewhat of a saga, but settle back and have a read, because what you think is important. YOU have a decision to make.

In the summer of 2006, the Scottish Curler revealed that the Royal Club had asked the auction house Sotheby's to value the painting of the Grand Match at Linlithgow Loch, so that it could be insured for the correct amount. The good news was that the painting was worth a substantial sum of money, potentially in excess of £500,000. The bad news was that it needed renovation and would be very expensive to insure.

Sotheby’s was instructed to assess interest in the painting from their private client list with the option to go to an auction sale in autumn 2007.

Meanwhile the RCCC Board of Directors sought the opinion of members about what to do with the painting. The Board believed that there were only three options:
1. Keep the painting but do not restore it
2. Keep the painting and restore it
3. Sell the painting

There were other options of course, such as simply giving it, or loaning it, to the National Galleries of Scotland, or another gallery, but these were not canvassed.

Option 3 received the most support, although concern was expressed that if the painting went to an open auction it might well be bought by a private buyer and disappear abroad, never to be on view in Scotland again. This concern was heeded by the RCCC Board and by February 2007 it seemed that the future of the painting had been secured. Sotheby's was instructed to continue as the selling agent but negotiations were to be with the National Galleries of Scotland only!

It seemed at the time a strange arrangement. The Royal Club Board wanted Sotheby's to sell the painting and at the same time it wanted the National Galleries of Scotland to purchase it. But both seller's agent and the prospective purchaser clearly would have their own, very different, interests. Sotheby's, quite naturally, would want to sell the painting for as large a sum as possible to maximise the percentage fee they would receive. The National Galleries of Scotland, quite naturally, would want to pay as little as possible for the painting.

By June 2007 a report had been produced (never made public) which indicated that the cost of repairing the painting would be much more than at first thought. At the 2007 RCCC AGM it was stated that if the sale did go ahead it would be a year before the painting was again on display.

My own words in a blog post in June 2007 (see here) were, "Call me a pessimist if you like but I suspect this story has a long way yet to run!"

I was correct.

Detail from the painting

The Minutes of the Royal Club Board from August 1, 2007, seemed to show that the parties were close to an agreement. Discussions were to be held on how the money raised from the sale might be used! Such funds would go into the Royal Club's Charitable Trust Fund. The painting was to go on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in Edinburgh.

A public announcement gave cause for optimism that the painting would be saved for the nation. It stated: 'The Board of the RCCC and the RCCC Charitable Trust are pleased to announce that they have agreed to loan the Charles Lees Painting of 'The Grand Match at Linlithgow' to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

RCCC Board Chairman Mike Ferguson said, "We have entered discussions over a possible sale of the painting to the Portrait Gallery. We will continue to work to ensuring that the wishes of the vast majority of curlers, ie that the painting remains in Scotland and open to public view, will be met. We are fully considering our options with regard to the use of the funds generated by any sale. At this stage it would be fair to say the abiding principles that will be passed on to the Directors of the RCCC Charitable Trust will be protection of the capital for curling's future and best use of the income to support curling's heritage and development."

James Holloway, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery said, "Charles Lees' painting of the Grand Match at Linlithgow is one of Scotland's greatest sporting paintings. I am delighted that we have been allowed by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club to borrow it and display it in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery."

It didn't happen. Negotiations with the National Galleries broke down. In June 2009, Colin Grahamslaw made this statement at the RCCC AGM, "If I can update briefly on the Charles Lees painting, we have been discussing throughout the year with the National Galleries of Scotland their bid for the picture. Unfortunately the situation with the Titians sidelined our picture. It seems to be easier to find 50 million for a couple of Titians than a slightly smaller amount for what we were looking for for our picture but, we continue to talk with the galleries and talk with Sotheby's about potential homes for the Charles Lees painting but, it still remains with the Royal Club and in our ownership and in safe-keeping in appropriate conditions."'

Come right up to date now, August 2010. The matter was discussed by the new Board at their first meeting following the AGM, and a statement made on the Royal Club website, see here.

The extract from the minutes reads, "The Board received a letter from Sotheby’s regarding the sale of the Charles Lees painting. The letter indicated that the Royal Club have been very patient with the National Portrait Gallery regarding their efforts to purchase the Lees painting but with the likelihood of the sale to the Portrait Gallery now virtually non-existent that the Club should look at putting the painting into auction. It was suggested that the picture be put into auction with an appropriate reserve and an estimate of £300-500,000 on it. The Board discussed whether or not it was possible to retain the picture. However it was felt that with an insurance premium of in excess of £6000, un-quantified storage charges and a restoration bill of a minimum of £50,000, possibly escalating to nearer £100,000 that this was not a realistic situation. It was felt that the feeling of the members had been to sell the picture but to try and retain it in Scotland, the Board felt that this had been tried and that the Gallery had been given the opportunity to pay by instalments but still were not able to purchase the picture. It was therefore resolved, reluctantly, that if no alternative solution could be found by the next Board meeting Sotheby’s would be given the authority to take the picture to auction. It was agreed to inform the Gallery of this decision to give them one final chance to make the purchase."

So, the future of one of the sport's greatest masterpieces will be decided this month. The RCCC statement says, "As the extract shows the Board is of the view that best efforts have been made to sell the picture and retain it in Scotland. This has not been possible and therefore the picture should be offered on open auction, it is hoped that this action may stimulate a domestic buyer into action, however it is also recognised that reluctantly the picture may be sold abroad.

The final decision will be taken at the Board meeting in late August. Any alternative suggestions should be directed to the Chairman of the board Mr Willie Nicoll." Willie's contact is given in the statement here.

What do I think? I would hate to see the our painting leave our shores. It is after all owned by all the members of the Royal Club. If it was up to me, I would offer it - free - to the Art Gallery and Museum at Kelvingrove in Glasgow. That gallery might enjoy being one up on the Edinburgh lot! It would be important though to have a commitment that it would be restored and go on show.

But it's not up to me, it's up to YOU, the curlers of Scotland. Spread the word! I suspect that many will be content to see the painting simply go to auction, and a large sum of money go into the Royal Club coffers. Whatever. It is important that the RCCC Board knows the views of the membership.

Notes about the painting:
The Grand Match at Linlithgow Loch took place on January 25, 1848. Thirty-five northern rinks played an equal number of southern rinks, with a further hundred southern rinks playing matches amongst themselves. Including spectators, some six thousand persons were present. The painting is not an accurate representation of the day, it being a composite portrait of all the curling notables of Scotland, Lees using artistic licence to include them as if they had been there. There is evidence to suggest that Lees travelled to the homes of curlers to sketch them, so that their likenesses could be accurately included in the large painting which was completed in 1849. The painting shows clearly the curlers’ dress and the single soled stones which were in use at the time. The painting was purchased by the Royal Club following a decision taken at the AGM in July, 1898.