UK risks losing £1.5m Florentine table tops

A pair of ornate Florentine pietre dure table tops are at risk of being exported from the UK unless a buyer can be found to match the asking price of £1,500,000. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed a temporary export bar on the pair so a buyer can be found to keep them in the UK.

The table tops originally belonged to George Clavering-Cowper, 3rd Earl Cowper, a renowned art collector who travelled to Italy in the 18th century. Rather than return to home, he stayed and lived in Florence until his death in 1789. His extensive collection of paintings, including the table tops, were taken to the UK where his sons gave them pride of place in their country house, Panshanger, Hertfordshire, which was purpose-built to house Earl Cowper’s artwork.

The decorative tops feature pietre dure panels with images of the Colosseum in Rome and the Porto Mediceo of Livorno, Tuscany. Pietre dure is a mosaic technique using coloured stones. The panels are considered as detailed as oil paintings and were displayed in the picture gallery at Panshanger, until the mid-twentieth century when the estate was sold and the house demolished.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said: “These beautiful table tops have been in the UK for hundreds of years. They have immense academic value and shed light on the history of art collecting and the English Grand Tour.”

The decision to defer the export licence follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by The Arts Council.

The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds that they were closely connected with our history and national life, they were of outstanding aesthetic importance, and 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.

RCEWA member Christopher Rowell said: “Earl Cowper, who commissioned these superb products of the Florentine hardstone workshops, was one of the most fascinating of all British Grand Tourists. His varied collections were of supreme quality, including Raphael’s two ‘Cowper’ Madonnas, and there is considerable documentation about his remarkable life in Florence. The Florentine pietre dure craftsmen were immensely skilled and their art was time consuming, exclusive and expensive. Each piece of coloured stone, selected to fit into these subtle depictions of the interior of the Roman Colosseum and of the port of Livorno, had to be cut precisely and fitted into the composition. Imagine designing and making a jigsaw from stone and cutting every piece meticulously without modern cutting machinery! No wonder that Earl Cowper had to wait several years to take delivery of them. The Cowper connection renders these beautiful and original table tops key documents for the history of the Grand Tour and for eighteenth-century British patronage of Italian art.”

The decision on the export licence application for the table tops will be deferred until 3rd July 2016. This may be extended until 3rd November 2016 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase them is made at the recommended price of £1,500,000.

Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price through private treaty sale arrangements, where appropriate, may also be considered by Ed Vaizey. Such purchases frequently offer substantial financial benefit to a public institution wishing to acquire the item.

Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the table tops should contact the RCEWA on 0845 300 6200.

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