Last weekend my family and I visited the Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford. My 6-year-old son loves this place because of all the headless statues, the bow you can use to shoot deer in the Prehistoric Europe room, and the gold coin of the Roman emperor Julian, who he’s named after.
In the European art section we came across several paintings by Manet. One was “Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus,” painted in 1868. The Ashmolean has been campaigning to keep this painting in the UK.
As an Ashmolean press release explains, “The painting was purchased by a foreign buyer in 2011 for £28.35 million. Following advice from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, the picture was judged to be of outstanding cultural importance and was placed under a temporary export bar … the painting was made available to a British public institution for 27% of its market value.”
So the museum set out to raise £7.83 million ($12.25 million). Julian puzzled through the fundraising plea with a serious look on his face, reached into his pocket for some coins, and plunked them in the box.
Three days later the Ashmolean announced they’d raised the money.
This is what I love about museums. They connect people with the world’s heritage. In some cases, like with the Ashmolean, they connect them for free. Art like this doesn’t belong in the living room of some asshole banker who makes his money from sub-prime mortgages and keeps it in offshore accounts. More and more, art and antiquities are seen as investments for the super rich, commodities to be bought and sold instead of appreciated. I’ve had to mingle with these plastic people in galleries like Sotheby’s in London. It’s the only chance I have to see the art for sale there before it disappears into a private collection.
I don’t even like Manet all that much, but that’s not the point. His work has touched millions of people for more than a century. So congratulations, Ashmolean, thanks for keeping this painting in the public eye where it belongs. And thanks for teaching my kid an important lesson in democracy.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]