A Belgian Bank Plans to Sell its Art Works

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)
Apollo and Marsyas, c.1625
Oil on Canvas - 146 x 117 cm
Belfius Banque’s Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

16/12/12 - Deaccessioning - Belgium - "Culture for all" : a lofty precept proclaimed by the Belgian bank, Belfius, the owner of an extensive collection of about 4,500 art works of which it is duly proud stating : "A locally anchored relationship bank, Belfius wishes to fully carry out its role in society by offering a true added value to its community, notably by sharing its art collection as much as possible with the general public." "Culture for all, but every man for himself" : the bank, now concerned with cost-cutting, has decided to sell off some of its works.
The problem is that Belfius is in fact the former bank, Dexia which was nationalized in October 2011 and rebaptized last February. So the question is, who owns these art works now ? Since government art works are not deaccessible, the answer is of course important. Moniek Delvou, the Belfius bank’s spokeperson, says that the works do indeed belong to the bank which, though its only shareholder is the Belgian State, has every right to sell them.

The Belfius-Dexia collection has a dual source. The first stems from the holdings of the former Crédit Communal, a public bank, corresponding to a panorama of Belgian art from the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection was created in 1960 to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Crédit Communal [1]. The second half of the ensemble, made up of old master works which are to be sold, were at the bank Paribas, then directed by Maurice Naessens who wished to refurnish notably the hôtel Osterrich, an old Antwerp building belonging to the bank. Another part of the collection is held at the hotel Bockholtz in Liège and also in Brussels.
These past few years the collection had added contemporary works, from Fabre to Berlinde De Bruyckere, including also Koen Van Mechelen and Lili Dujourie. A selection of works ranging from the 19th to the 21st century is on view at Dexia’s office headquarters.

The financial institution stated that it would like to refocus its collection on works produced after 1830, the year of Belgian independence, thus making this correspond with Belfius’ presence in Belgium. In passing, we should note that among these old masters, not Belgian enough to keep, there are two studies by Rubens (The Rape of the Sabines and The Reconciliation between the Romans and the Sabines), a painting by Jacob Jordaens (ill.) currently displayed at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in the retrospective Jordaens et l’Antique, a Jan Velvet Brueghel (An Offering to Ceres with a Garland of Fruit), a painting by Roelandt Savary..., artists whose market value is quite high. These paintings would obviously be welcome indeed in any public collection. The ensemble also includes tapestries, old books, furniture and sculptures.

The question of whether the public bank is entitled to sell the works or not is in fact of secondary importance. The issue at stake is a moral and cultural one. As for the economic argument, it is just as foundless : Dexia’s debt, a bank which was nationalized in October 2011 to avoid its collapse, is so high that according to many observers in Belgium, the sale of this artistic heritage would not come close to solving its financial problems. Some are asking Belfius to create a foundation to ensure the unity of the collection such as was done by another Belgian company, Belgacom.

In Belgium, it is up to the regions to decide on how to protect art works so as to prevent them from leaving the country. Flanders has the rule of "topstukken" enabling works to be listed. Apparently, according to the newspaper L’Echo, this has been done for the two studies by Rubens, but this does not prevent their being sold, simply forbids them from leaving the Flemish region. Unlike the French Communauté which can list movable objects, this option seems to be extremely limited in Brussels. Whatever the case, the Belgian government, as the bank’s only shareholder, has the power to prevent this sale even if Paul Magnette, Minister of Scientific Policy, in charge of museums and who opposes the project, learned the news through the press [2].
A petition against the sale was recently launched online.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, jeudi 3 janvier 2013


[1] We would like to thank Jean-Marie Duvosquel, who directed this collection until 1997, for this information.

[2] According to La Libre Belgique.

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