Colin Gleadell illustrates the importance of the Witt library at the Courtauld Institute in this vignette of finds. The library was closed four days a week to make up for a massive budget shortfall. Gleadell reveals the sums that made the closing necessary: “These libraries charge the public £2 a day or £10 a year to use and, with approximately 800 visitors a year, bring in little revenue. But they cost in the region of £700,000 a year to run.”
Tales of discoveries made at the Witt are legion. It was at the Witt in 1989, for example, that the art dealer, Buffy Parker, first sensed that a grubby portrait of a pope which he had bought for £180 was in fact a lost portrait of Pope Clement V11 by Sebastiano del Piombo which ultimately sold to the J.Paul Getty Museum for an estimated £6m. Philip Mould, a dealer renowned for giving names to faces on old British portraits, has ploughed the well trodden path to the Witt on countless occasions. His gallery director, Bendor Grosvenor, describes how a handsome 18th century portrait was bought as a portrait of an unknown man. On a visit to the Witt last year he found a photograph of the same painting together with the identity of the sitter and details of its history of ownership. It is now fully catalogued as a portrait of Joseph Taylor by Joseph Highmore and is on sale for £45,000.
The libraries are so well organised that last week, a researcher for the Fine Art Society took just 20 minutes in the Witt to establish that a previously anonymous 18th century painting of exotic birds was by the hand of Charles Collins on the basis of comparisons with photographs of drawings of birds by Collins in the Eton College collection.
“It’s the holy grail for art historians and dealers interested in connoisseurship,” says Charles Beddington, the old master dealer and author of many a learned essay in the Burlington Magazine. “I was shocked when I heard of the proposals, and wrote to the director on behalf of the London art trade. The Courtauld simply hasn’t done enough to get the funding.”
Gleadell closes with the observation that some members of the trade have donated £500 toward the library’s operation. But given the economic value created for the art trade–and the opportunities offered by digitization–shouldn’t this resource tap into the art trade for its perpetuation and further transformation?
Art Sales: Dealers Decry Courtauld Cuts (Telegraph)