It doesn't surprise me to read in the Art Newspaper about how the art historian John Pope- Hennessy, better known to renaissance scholars as "the Pope", was allowed to export an important old master out of the country instead of delaying its export license. It's sickening to read that a former director of a British gallery, and an inspiration to lots of British art historians, sought to sell a Carracci abroad instead of seeking to secure it for a U.K. museum. This seems to have been a tendency with museum directors in the days before accountability. I recall that Blunt sought to find international buyers for old masters that appeared in this country.
The Art Newspaper pulls no punches. The declassification of these secret papers show that It was clearly negligent of the then director of the London National Gallery- Michael Levey- to recommend that the export licence for the Carracci's Vision of St Francis – above- should be not be held up. Levey's words are unnerving coming from the director of a British museum:
"Given that it was the private property of a major national museum director," it would be "difficult" to recommend that its export licence should be delayed, to allow a UK public collection to match the price."
Our loss was eventually the National Gallery of Canada's gain. But perhaps the most tragic part of this saga is the Pope's statement that he wanted his paintings to go to the Ashmolean in Oxford. Although Pope-Hennessy had reassured Michael Levey that his paintings would go to Oxford, it seems that his enmity with Levey and the N.G may have played some part in the decision to sell the Carracci to the London dealer Colnaghi, who did much to promote the painting for sale. In a few months its price had rocketed from £25,000 to near £100, 000. Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the story. Pope-Hennessy sold his Domenichino to the Getty Museum for an undisclosed price, later revealed by the man himself to have been $750, 000. The Domenichino had also passed through the export licensing system with the same result.
A very sad coda to this disreputable episode- none of the Pope's paintings were willed to the Ashmolean. They would surely have boosted the artistic stock of that provincial gallery. What a waste!
I'm sorry but this is a Pope who should be inverted, as in Dante's Inferno!