Susan Moore

Luxury Goods SpecialNew ways to keep Old Masters

Our artistic heritage is in danger of disappearing abroad

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It seems that hardly a week goes by without the threat of another great work of art leaving these shores. Certainly Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota must think so. Just as he announces, with palpable relief, that a private benefactor has stepped forward and promised £12.5 million to 'save' Sir Joshua Reynolds's celebrated portrait of Omai from export (more of that later), the gallery may well feel obliged to embark on a new campaign to save yet another costly treasure.

This jewel is a recently discovered 'lost' portfolio of 19 highly finished and perfectly preserved William Blake watercolours, the original illustrations to Robert Blair's poem 'The Grave', commissioned by the publisher Robert Cromek in 1805. According to the Blake specialist Martin Butlin, the portfolio is 'arguably the most important Blake discovery since he began to be appreciated in the second half of the 19th century'. As Cromek published only 12 illustrations, seven of the watercolours are in effect 'new' Blakes (one other unpublished watercolour for the project exists at Yale). Four or five of the sheets probably rank among the most important watercolours the artist ever made; the image of 'Death's Door', for instance, with the hunched old man entering the stone door of the grave on crutches, his regenerate self sitting atop the tomb, one of the most familiar.

The story of the portfolio's discovery two years ago (in a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow), its purchase for a song (about £1,000) and ultimate sale for a price which may well exceed £10 million is the stuff of dreams for every junk-shop browser. It is the stuff of nightmares for a museum director.

All began well enough when the Yorkshire bookdealers who bought the portfolio offered it to Tate and, after rejecting its initial £2 million offer, accepted a proposed £4.9 million. The gallery was given five months to find the funds. Meanwhile, a dispute had broken out over the portfolio's ownership. An out-of-court hearing settled on a division of proceeds several ways but, unfortunately for the gallery, its arrangement had been with only one set of vendors. Days before a scheduled meeting at Tate in December last year, the London private dealer Libby Howie nipped in and offered the bookdealers a significantly higher sum on behalf of private clients. The vendors accepted. Ms Howie now reveals that an application to export the portfolio will probably be made in the next few months.

This unfolding saga might run to even more episodes than 'Omai: Noble Savage'. Unsettlingly, the Blake story and any number of similar cases offer more than a sense of déj