I noticed something odd about the Holbein Henry VIII portrait today.
(No, not just his weirdly huge calves. Calves were considered very attractive on men, this is the 16th century equivalent of Photoshopped boobs.)
So the National Portrait Gallery has just started an exhibition on The Real Tudors (Action-Packed! Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before!), which is showing objects personally owned by the monarchs and all the famous portraits: Elizabeth with her hair down holding the sceptre and orb, Henry VII giving the side-eye out of the frame, Mary looking strained and unwell. Most of the paintings are from the gallery’s own collection, but some paintings (and all the objects) are on loan from other museums or private collections. I love reading where all the different pieces have come from, both so I can picture them in their usual homes and because it gives me a nice warm feeling to see museums collaborating to bring interesting art and history to the public. A large red wooden rosary that Henry VIII prayed with is now owned by the Duke of Devonshire; Mary’s devotional book is usually at Westminster Abbey; and a locket ring with Elizabeth’s picture inside is on loan from the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, which is not open to the public.
Then the label for the famous Holbein painting says this:
Acquired in lieu of tax by H.M. Treasury in 1957 and subsequently transferred to The National Trust.
Wait wait wait. Was this some chummy gentleman’s agreement between a duty-dodging lord and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Or can you actually use art to pay your tax bill?
Yes, it turned out, that’s exactly what’s going on – I looked it up on my phone in the café and this wasn’t a one-off. The art-for-tax scheme, called Acceptance in Lieu, is still running and is managed by the Arts Council.
I mean, what a great idea!
The Acceptance in Lieu scheme was started in 1910 to allow posh people to pay inheritance taxes without having to sell off parts of their estates to raise the money. As you’ll remember from many PG Wodehouse novels, the British upper class is often actually fairly cash poor: they may own a £25m country house but that doesn’t mean they have money on hand to fix the pipes. Before 1910, people who inherited the family estate would be taxed on it, but because their wealth is in things rather than a bank account, they’d have to raise the money by selling some of those valuable objects to private collectors. The natural response to this is ‘oh, poor rich people, I hear your diamond shoes aren’t fitting too well either’, but the government was concerned that important collections were being broken up and great works of art were possibly being lost to the public forever. So instead of having people sell important art to get money to pay the Treasury, the Treasury started just accepting the art as payment instead, so the tax bill could be settled but the art would go to the public instead of being passed around private hands.
There are very stringent standards for art to be accepted as tax payment. There’s an annual limit of £30m total, and to be accepted, the art has to be ‘pre-eminent’ – “in other words, of particular historic, artistic, scientific or local significance, either individually or collectively” – and approved by the culture secretary and a panel of experts. Applicants must prove details of ownership between 1933-1945 (no stolen Nazi paintings). It has to be in “acceptable” condition and you must provide at least three high-quality colour photographs, both printed out in the application package and (and this is possibly the most onerous part of all) on a CD-ROM.
If the panel accepts your Holbein or your Ming vase, it also decides where it will go. Sometimes a piece is already on a long-term loan to a public museum – in the past two years, Acceptance in Lieu acquired a collection of Newcastle glass that has been in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle since 1981, and two Barbara Hepworth sculptures that are in the Edinburgh botanic gardens. They’re staying where they are; the only thing changing is the name on the ownership plaque. Collections from country houses and stately homes can stay in those houses, as long as they’re open to the public at least 100 days a year. Otherwise, pieces are sent to museums across the UK. (It must be so exciting to be a museum curator who wins a free piece of artwork! You’re just sitting there sifting through yet another pile of Roman coins when you get a call from the Arts Council saying, “Hello, would you like these Raphael doodles for no cost to you at all? Oh, and do you fancy a Rothko?”)
The stated aim is to prevent art works being sold abroad – the 2004 consultation report on it was somewhat melodramatically titled “Saving Art for the Nation” – and while there’s a bit of irony in British “Anything we can carry” museums trying to keep art works in the country, I do think public ownership of art is preferable to private ownership, no matter where it is. It’s not as if works sold to foreign private collectors are somehow more likely to be made available to the public.
I’m just so happy I found out this scheme exists. It seems to me to be a government policy working exactly like it should, for the public benefit in an efficient, good and non-obvious way. Since the Treasury doesn’t “give change”, the value of the art is usually more than the tax bill: in 2003, £16m of tax bills were paid with £40m worth of art, which is a great bargain for the British public. Cash can come from anywhere, but art is unique, and I think it’s wonderful that so much of it is being quietly nationalised, as it should be.