Are we really going to let the super-rich take all the art? | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

A London art adviser has been bulk-buying Picassos. The 0.01% are welcome to their tacky yachts, but not humanity’s masterpieces. Plus: Does David Willetts practise what he preaches?

Last Wednesday, London art adviser Harry Smith spent more than £110m bulk-buying 13 works by Picasso on behalf of unnamed wealthy clients. The day before, Smith, the executive chairman and managing director of the art advisory firm Gurr Johns, bought another nine at Christie’s. Is it pessimistic of me to fear that the bulk of these masterpieces will not end up in public museums?

How I dislike people who hog great artworks all to themselves. In fact, it gives me a burning fury to rival the heat of a sun. This latest news follows an investigation by the historian Sir David Cannadine that found museum collections in the UK are at risk of becoming “inert and lifeless” unless more money is invested for them to buy objects. Is this the future we face? A society in which only the super-rich get to bask in the beauty of humanity’s masterpieces. I don’t especially begrudge them their monopoly on vulgar yachts or tacky hotels, but when they start stealing the art, I’m liable to start rocking back and forth while muttering “Full communism!” under my breath.

“We are predicting that art will comfortably overtake wine as the best-performing asset class this year,” Andrew Shirley, a partner at Knight Frank and author of the luxury investment index, said at the end of last year, presumably to divert attention from the husk where his soul once was. Thank God for export bars, such as the one placed recently on Francesco Guardi’s painting Rialto Bridge With the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi. But they are not enough, and as long as our galleries and museums remain chronically underfunded, more and more pieces will fall into the hands of the haves, who often lack the brains and the hearts to fully appreciate them.

Does David Willetts practise what he preaches?

It was refreshing to see David Willetts calling for the government to target wealthy baby boomers. Willetts often feels like the lone “oldie” who is on our team when it comes to generational injustice, at least in the Tory party. Everyone should read his book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give it Back. However, I can’t help but wonder whether he practises what he preaches. When he was an MP, his 2015 declarations for the register of members’ interests stated that he owned a flat in west London, “for which rental income is received”. I have no doubt that Willetts wants to see a better society for young people, but I cannot help but feel that is unlikely to happen while nearly a fifth of MPs are landlords.


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

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