The Duchess, the Scouser and the $23.4 million Poussin

It’s been a source of great amusement to my close friends that for more than 3 years I have been advising the Duchess of Rutland. The idea that a “Scouser Photographer” could end up in such a role has made many a pal chuckle.

I met Emma, the Duchess of Rutland, when promoting the idea of creating the Belvoir Castle Cricket Trust along the lines of the Arundel Castle Cricket Foundation. Emma has 5 childen – two of them were young lads of the right age for the cricket sessions that I was promoting. She loved the energy that I had brought to the sleepy villages on the Belvoir Estate, the ducal home in the East Midlands. She could see that I had some time on my hands – and asked if I would help her with some projects. I agreed to be a “fly on the wall” in her Private Office at Belvoir Castle for a couple of weeks – and when I produced a paper giving my thoughts it was well received by the Duke and Duchess.

The three year journey helping Emma has just been completed. I set out to convert the businesses of the Estate from loss-making to cash generative (done!) and to change the balance sheet so that debt was removed through the sale of an asset (done!).

I can hear you say – what the hell do you know about farming, property, shooting, the art world, aristocracy, etc? Well – the secret has been heavy delegation. I brought in specialists for farming (Richard Sanders of Fisher German) to oversee the 5,000 acres of farmland, appointed a property specialist (Paul Bagshaw of Rotherhill) to create opportunities and income from the portfolio of 350 estate properties – along with starting initiatives around green energy, resident artists, etc.

The biggest achievement has been the sale for $24.3m of a Poussin painting. When I came on the scene at Belvoir Castle, there had just been an attempt to sell a set of five Poussin paintings. For various reasons, this sale process had been aborted – and the Estate ended up with large bills for professional support.

The painting that was eventually sold, Ordination, has a particularly rich past. It is from the first set of “Seven Sacraments”, which was commissioned from Nicolas Poussin by the Italian collector Cassiano dal Pozzo.

The first series was well known among connoisseurs throughout Europe. One approach for a sale from England was blocked by The Pope, who refused to let the paintings out of Italy. But in 1785, the 4th Duke of Rutland (with the help of his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds) stepped in and was able to buy them from descendants of dal Pozzo. He is said to have made copies of the paintings so the originals could be sneaked out of Italy.

For more than 200 years the Poussin “Sacraments” hung in Belvoir Castle, but in recent years were on the walls of the National Gallery in London. One painting among the original seven, “Penance”, was destroyed in a fire at Belvoir, and another, “Baptism”, was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1946.

It was clear that some of the balance sheet of the Rutlands needed to be re-aligned. So I was asked to take a trusted role between the family (who had very mixed emotions about the sale of this chattel) and the art world (which at this level is extremely complex and political). It was decided that, to keep the process simple, we should pursue an auction of the painting at Christie’s. This was not ideal, but with emotions running high it was best to stick to a tight timetable. I was determined that a sale would be made, avoiding another set of abortive costs being incurred by the family.

The auction day came in December 2010, with great fanfare – “Ordination” was the headline picture of the Old Masters Sale in London. The painting had already toured through Paris and New York to whet the appetite of foreign buyers. The family decided to head off to their second home in Switzerland and I was trusted to be their eyes in the auction room. On the night, there were three phone bidders ready to do battle – and I sat in wait as all the other lots went under the hammer. “Ordination” came up last. I’d been briefed that the auctioneer was allowed to take “bids of the wall” up to (but not including) the reserve price (£15m). We got that far – and none of the phone bidders acted. Silence – and then the lot was passed! No Sale…

It was a difficult phone call to make to Emma. She was kind and said “we had done all we could” – but she also told me her intuition said that it would be eventually be bought by an American! The drama continued into the night, with a couple of the phone bidders wanting to engage in buying the painting outside the auction room. I was locked in Christie’s London HQ until late that evening. I stood my ground for the client – and insisted that we would not move on the reserve price. The word around the auction room was that the failure to sell the painting would mean there was no market for the painting for this generation.

The appointed agent, Robert Holden, continued to work tirelessly. We kept in touch as he navigated through the art world to see if there was still an opportunity to get the painting sold. Emotions still ran high back at the Castle – but I managed to keep the process running. In early 2011, a sale was agreed to an American buyer. Only a couple of people knew the identity (not even the Duke and Duchess) – and the process to gain an export license was set in motion. In August the license was granted – and on 9th September 2011 the secret buyer was revealed as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

I was told the other day that the sale of the Poussin is the first time since Cromwell that the family have not had debt. Not sure it’s totally true – but either way, I am pleased with my achievement. Emma has been a pleasure to work with – her high energy never ceases to amaze me. We continue to work together on the Belvoir Castle Cricket Trust.

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