A National Treasure's Value = What Is Given Up

Two British museums spent millions to keep a 19th-century sculpture from being sold to an American institution. Was one piece worth it?

They are female. There are three of them. They are carved with exquisite finesse out of white marble. They cost 7.6 million sterling ($12 million). And they do not live in Malibu.

They are ''The Three Graces'' by neoclassicist Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757-1822), who in his lifetime was considered the world's consummate sculptor.

The sculpture had been bought in March 1989 by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., whose vast purchasing power dominates the world art-masterpiece market. But, after a tortuous campaign to save it from export and keep it in Britain (where it has resided since its original purchase by the sixth Duke of Bedford in 1819), it was finally bought for, and partly by, two British art museums: the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Major contributions to this mammoth purchase came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, John Paul Getty II, and Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, among others. Many small contributions were given by private donors.

So now the sculpture has two homes in perpetuity. Currently - through December 1998 - it is in Edinburgh. After that it will be shown in London for approximately seven years. This north-south yo-yoing will then continue at seven-year intervals.

Canova brought to the neoclassicism of his period a paradoxical mix of sensual warmth and cool perfectionism that ''The Three Graces'' epitomize. Even his detractors admit the work is his masterpiece. (There are two versions of the work; the other is in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.)

The languor and sentimentality of this work may seem unpleasant today. But there is no denying that the sculptor magically convinces the eye that the marble has all the tenderness of ''living flesh.'' The work elicits admiration. Greatly revered and aspired to by Victorian sculptors, it was, however, a precedent for some flaccid statuary of the weakest sort.

It also displays a delight in female form that in our feminist and politically correct times is troubling (because it is so effective and unabashed) and an example of the male domination of past aesthetics.

Because of the extraordinary effort to keep the sculpture in Britain, because of its cost, and also, presumably, because the work's potent popular (and sexual) appeal has not been ignored by the media, there can be few people in Britain who have not heard of ''The Three Graces'' by now.

Large numbers of people previously indifferent to its existence as a national treasure, now flock to see it. During this summer's Edinburgh Festival, visitor figures at the National Gallery, according to National Galleries of Scotland director Timothy Clifford, more than doubled those of previous years. He says visitors all head straight from the front door to the Graces.

In the minds of museum officials, such potential popularity is a justification for virtually mortgaging their limited purchasing funds to secure a single outstanding work of this kind. Doubters - such as Duncan Macmillan, reader of fine art at Edinburgh University and curator of the university's Talbot Rice Gallery - suggests that visitor numbers are not necessarily the best criterion.

Mr. Macmillan observes that the number of visitors to the National Gallery (one of the world's great art collections) this summer could have been similarly increased ''with a lady standing on her head with nothing on, painted in gold.'' He describes as awful the business ''of identifying crude numbers with the kind of objectives for which the National Gallery was created.''

But Mr. Clifford and Timothy Stevens, assistant director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (known familiarly as the V&A), who was closely involved in the sculpture's purchase, do voice popular appeal as one aspect of their decision to pay more than 1 million ($1.57 million) each toward ''The Three Graces.''

Both are reluctant to admit that such an enormous depletion of their funds for one work is bound to mean inability to purchase other works that critics argue their institutions ought to be buying. Yet neither will deny outright that something has to give in a situation of this sort.

Mr. Stevens admits that the V&A has just over 1 million a year for acquisitions. ''Obviously that is an inadequate amount. So you have to take ruthless decisions about priorities.'' In the case of a work like ''The Three Graces'' he says, ''you have to make up your mind whether its importance is so great that it's worth pooling everything to secure it.'' Then he adds: ''Well, not quite everything! There's got to be a common-sense element.''

Both Clifford and Stevens point out that their institutions have central funds for major purchases, while each department in their museums has separate allocations for minor purchases. But if the central funds are emptied, the individual departments - perhaps wanting to buy a work that is even slightly too much for their allocations to purchase - no longer have recourse to the museums' central funds.

The purchase of even comparatively small items is certain, therefore, to be either missed forever or delayed because of the museum's eagerness to pool just about ''everything'' for one or two major acquisitions.

Macmillan, in his columns for ''The Scotsman'' newspaper, has insinuated a possible connection between Clifford's expenditure on the Graces, and the inability of the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh (one branch of Scotland's National Galleries) to buy a relatively less expensive and less ''important'' painting by a Scottish woman artist of the 1920s named Cecile Walton. Clifford calls one of Macmillan's articles on this subject ''a silly piece.''

But the Walton painting, with happy irony, is a self-portrait (called ''Romance'') that presents the painter's subjective and sober picture of womanhood, which happens to be at odds with that presented by Canova's three nubile girls. That it should have been impossible to buy - because, as Portrait Gallery curator James Holloway says simply, ''we didn't have the money'' - opens up all kinds of questions about the priorities of museums with ''inadequate funds.'' (That probably means every museum in the world that is not in Malibu.)

Clifford argues that the Walton painting was ''turned down because of the cost and because we weren't totally convinced it was a great picture anyhow.''

But Holloway takes a different view. He says he was ''particularly keen to get'' this picture. He enthuses about its remarkable qualities.

The final twist to this tale is that ''Romance'' has now been given by an anonymous donor to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Columnist Macmillan is delighted. Curator Holloway is delighted. What director Clifford feels, he did not say. But at least it did not cost him a penny.

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