Two paintings by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn may leave France without as much as a whimper as the country says it's too broke to buy them.
With the government's coffers bare, France's culture ministry is letting banking tycoon Eric de Rothschild export the masterpieces, paving the way for a sale that could fetch more than 150 million euros ($163 million), according to estimates. Under French law, major artworks can't leave the country without the state's permission. If the country denies permission, it must buy the art within 30 months.
"The state must have the necessary financial capacity to buy any proposed art works," and as "the purchase was seen to be difficult, the ministry along with the museum, allowed the export," an official at the Louvre museum said in an e-mailed response to questions. "In this particular case, a purchase was unthinkable."
With the government vowing spending cuts of 21 billion euros in 2015, it said it had no choice but to say au revoir to the portraits of Marten Soolmans and his fiancee Oopjen Coppit. The artworks have been owned by the Rothschild family since the mid-19th century and are now the property of the wine-making baron who produces Chateau Lafite Rothschild, an iconic Bordeaux. He's a member of the board of the Friends of the Louvre, a fundraising group.
The Louvre discussed the Rembrandts with Rothschild for a year before renouncing them, citing a lack of funds, according to the official. President Francois Hollande's government ruled out using state funds, appealing to donors or starting a public fundraising campaign.
"It's not just that the state and the Louvre couldn't buy them, they didn't even try!" Didier Rykner, editor-in-chief of art magazine latribunedelart.com's said by phone.
The culture ministry didn't respond to queries on why it didn't find other means to retain the paintings.
The two paintings are exceptional, even for Rembrandts. The artist rarely painted full-length portraits, and most of his work today is in museums -- including in Stockholm, Detroit, Baltimore, Zurich and Frankfurt -- and not in private hands.
The artworks may end up in Amsterdam's Rijkmuseum. Gregor Weber, the museum's head of fine and decorative art, was non- committal when asked if it wants to add to its large collection of the Dutch master's works.
"We are always looking if something is for sale," he said. The 150 million-euro price tag is in line with the market, he said.
A spokeswoman for Rothschild's wine business in Paris said the baron's decision was private, declining to comment further. An official at auction house Christie's International Plc, which latribunedelart.com reported was commissioned by Rothschild to ask for the state waiver, said it doesn't comment on clients and their collections.
Rothschild's ancestors have been regular art donors to the French state, which even held an exhibition about the dynasty at its national library in 2012, praising them as "emblematic patrons of the art tradition."
It's not the first time France has let major artworks leave its borders, leading to a sale. In 2013, an unidentified France- based family sold Dutch master Gerrit van Honthorst's 1623 masterpiece "The Concert" to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
"What a shame for France," said Rykner. "The Netherlands, the U.K. are all buying national treasures and the state claims it's broke? What a defeat. Meanwhile U.S. museums are shopping."
The U.K.'s National Gallery and its Scottish spin off completed the purchase of a 95 million-pound ($152 million) Titian pair of paintings in March 2012.
"We have been able to secure both of them for the public, in a period of economic hardship, because of the esteem and affection that both institutions have enjoyed for many decades," Nicholas Penny, the gallery's director, said in a speech after the purchase.
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