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Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, note of case hearing on 10 February 2016: A pair of pietre dure table tops (Case 28, 2015-16)


1. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) met on 10 February 2016 to consider an application to export a pair of pietre dure table tops. The value shown on the export licence application was 1,500,000 which represented the agreed purchase price for a private sale. The expert adviser had objected to the export of the table tops under the second and third Waverley criteria on the grounds that their departure from the UK would be a misfortune because (ii) they were of outstanding aesthetic importance and (iii) they were of outstanding significance for the study of eighteenth-century collecting.

2. The eight regular RCEWA members present were joined by three independent assessors, acting as temporary members of the Reviewing Committee.

3. The applicant confirmed that the purchase price did not include VAT. The applicant also confirmed that the owner understood the circumstances under which an export licence might be refused and that, if the decision on the licence was deferred, the owner would allow the table tops to be displayed for fundraising purposes.

Experts submission 4. The expert adviser had provided a written submission stating that these commissioned artistic creations were based on oil sketches painted by renowned artists for the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence (established 1588 by Ferdinando I deMedici as a princely workshop), with the colours of the specimen reference collection of stones in mind. The artists intention is only fully expressed in the pietre dure, which would have been carefully assembled by specialist craftsmen. The present examples are among the very best in this category, and among the few known pietre dure landscape scenes after Antonio Cioci (died 1792) who was the designer of the Opificio at the time and introduced still life and trompe loeil capricci in pietre dure. 5. Only the most distinguished and wealthy Grand Tourists could afford such works. George, 3rd Earl Cowper (1738-1789) excelled as patron of the arts from painting to poetry and music, as well as supporting scientists, for example, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827). Like many other British noblemen of the time he went to Italy on the Grand Tour, but unlike most of them he stayed there and established himself in Florence. Earl Cowper lived at Villa Palmieri until his death aged 51 in 1789. As a collector he influenced art and taste in Florence as well as in his native Britain. After his death his superb paintings collection, including this pair of pietre dure tables, was taken to Great Britain. His sons, the 4th and 5th Earl Cowper and subsequent generations, honoured his collection, and gave it pride of place in their country house, Panshanger,

Hertfordshire. There, paintings and table tops were displayed together in the picture gallery until the mid-twentieth century when the estate was sold and the house demolished. 6. The panels at the centre of each table show the interior of the Colosseum in Rome and the famous Porto Mediceo of Livorno, Tuscany. Livorno, known in English as Leghorn, was a trade hub and the first point of contact with Italy for many British Grand Tourists during the eighteenth century. The Colosseum as one of the most important ancient Roman ruins, was a must see for every visitor to Rome and a frequently depicted ancient site. Antonio Ciocis representation of both landmarks offers unusual, intimate views which include figures of visitors. These reflect the Earls own travel experiences. The juxtaposition of these two ancient and modern subjects is unusual, and therefore a powerful celebration of the Grand Tour as a journey of contemporary exploration and marvel at the antique. 7. The table tops under consideration were perceived as painting in stone rather than decorative arts, a fact that is also highlighted by the 5th Earls decision to show them in the Picture Gallery at his newly constructed country house, Panshanger, alongside his fathers collection of paintings; whereas the bulk of the decorative arts was dispersed in Italy. As such they illustrate an integral aspect of eighteenth-century collecting in Britain and are important for any study in the history of collecting during this period. Their execution from Ciocis designs is of outstanding quality. The later wooden stands and contemporary pietre dure frame borders, add to the interest of the tables, and provide evidence for the continued appreciation of hardstone pictures over time.

Applicants submission

8. The applicant had stated in a written submission that they do not believe that the tables are so closely connected with our history and national life that their departure would be a misfortune. As the table bases are not the original bases for the table, the tables are therefore not as aesthetically important. Their two footed construction also means that the tables need to be drilled into a wall in order to display them. The pictorial scenes within the geometrical borders are finely executed and both are of a high quality. There is a good amount of pietre dure material in the UK which allows for the study of pietre dure manufacturing and design, so they dont believe that the tables departure would hinder any study of this branch of art, history or learning. It could be considered, however, that the tables are important for the study of British collecting in the 18th century.

Discussion by the Committee

9. The expert adviser and applicant retired and the Committee discussed the case. The Committee agreed that research surrounding pietre dure is a lively area of scholarship. These particular table tops have enormous scholastic value for the study of decorative arts and the history of collecting. The Committee considered that pietre dure of this type does not chime easily with

our modern aesthetic, but the outstanding painterly quality of these table tops with their regency rosewood bases is clearly distinguishable. In addition to their artistic significance, these pieces are also of historical importance: their commission by a British Grand Tourist in London is unsually well recorded. During the 1770s and 1780s, tourists began to admire and explore the interiors of Ancient Romes remaining urban landscape. Produced contemporarily, the viewpoint of the Colosseum and presence of the Porto Mediceo of Livorno within the table tops add to their uniqueness. A member of the Committee also noted that until recently the tables had been on public view at Firle Place, Sussex.

Waverley Criteria

10. The Committee voted on whether the table tops met the Waverley criteria. Five members voted that they met the first Waverley criterion. Ten members voted that they met the second Waverley criterion. Ten members voted that they met the third Waverley criterion. The table tops were therefore found to meet the first, second, and third Waverley criteria on the grounds that (i) they were closely connected with our history and national life, (ii) they were of outstanding aesthetic importance, and (iii) they were of outstanding significance for the study of pietre dure as an integral element in the field of decorative arts, and for the study of eighteenth-century collecting.

Matching offer

11. The Committee recommended the sum of 1,500,000 as a fair matching price.

Deferral period

12. The Committee agreed to recommend to the Secretary of State that the decision on the export licence should be deferred for an initial period of 3 months. If, within that period, the Arts Council received notification of a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the table tops, the Committee recommended that there should be a further deferral period of 4 months.

Communication of findings

13. The expert adviser and the applicant returned. The Chairman notified them of the Committees decision on its recommendations to the Secretary of State. The applicant confirmed that the owner would accept a matching offer at the price recommended by the Committee if the decision on the licence was deferred by the Secretary of State.

14. The expert adviser agreed to act as champion if a decision on the licence was deferred by the Secretary of State.