US billionaire defends refusal to sell £30m Pontormo painting

Dalya Alberge
Detail from Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap. The 16th-century painting is one of only 15 surviving portraits by Pontormo. Photograph: DCMS/PA

An American billionaire and philanthropist has attacked what he described as “false statements” made over his refusal to sell a 16th-century masterpiece to the National Gallery.

J Tomilson Hill, one of the world’s foremost art collectors, spoke of feeling “battered” by criticisms that he rejected a £30.7m offer for his 1530 portrait by Jacopo Pontormo after the gallery had pulled out all the stops to raise the money.

Speaking to the Guardian, he said he warned the National Gallery and the Arts Council before they started fundraising that he “would not accept a value for the picture lower than my cost”. He added: “They went ahead, despite the warning … Their argument that they wasted all this time and effort to raise the money, only to have the offer rejected, rings very hollow.”

Hill purchased Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap in 2015 for $48m (£30.7m). The National Gallery raised the money, primarily from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Treasury. But Hill argued that, since the Brexit vote in June, the steep decline in sterling’s value against the dollar meant the offer would leave him short by $10m (£8m).

The work is one of only 15 surviving portraits by the Florentine painter Pontormo, and one of the only examples of his work that resides outside his native Italy.

Hill first saw the painting at the National Gallery during its loan between 2008 and 2015. He was later told by a dealer that its then owner, the Earl of Caledon, was interested in a cash sale.

After purchasing it in dollars, Hill applied for an export licence. In December 2015, the culture minister placed a temporary export bar on it, to allow national collections to match the price.

Reports suggested Hill disregarded export rules and an agreement to sell to a matching offer, and that the Earl had sold it to him off the National Gallery walls. However, Hill said this was incorrect.

He added: “There have been some false statements … I didn’t renege. I always had the right to say no.”

Export guidelines do state that “an owner is entirely free to reject an offer”, he said. They are also constructed to try to ensure a fair deal that does not disadvantage the seller, he added. “We’re talking about somebody who has been disadvantaged.

“If they had come up with the $48m, I would have sold the picture, even though I had a right to say no.”

He was prepared to lose out financially because the painting’s value had already increased by $20m, he said. He was also open to loaning the painting to the National Gallery before exporting it.

Hill, 68, is a partner in asset management group Blackstone. Based in New York, he has donated tens of millions of dollars to charitable causes, mainly related to education and the arts.

He lends exclusively to public institutions worldwide from his world-class art collection, which includes masterpieces by Rubens and Francis Bacon and is believed to be worth in excess of $800m.

He was speaking to the Guardian during a visit to London shortly after the culture secretary, Karen Bradley, prevented the Pontormo from leaving Britain. Hill must either keep it or sell it in the UK. He cannot apply for another licence for 10 years.

In the meantime, the painting remains hidden in climate-controlled storage. Both UK and international museums are requesting a loan.

The National Gallery declined to comment.


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