U.K. galleries on quest to save painting

A group of British artists look at "Diana and Actaeon," a painting by artist Titian at the National Gallery in London.

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Kai Ryssdal: You know how if somebody lends you something and you hang onto it long enough, you kind of start to think of it as yours? It happens all the time with things like books and sweatshirts right, and mostly, it's not big deal. But what happens when the objects in question are 450-year-old masterpieces by Renaissance painter Titian? That's the situation the National Galleries of Scotland finds itself in. The paintings have been on loan to the galleries for decades. Now, though, the owner -- a Scottish Duke -- wants to sell them. He's willing to charge the museum what he says is a bargain price -- nearly $150 million -- but his deadline is coming up fast. Christopher Werth reports the museums are scrambling to raise the cash.


Christopher Werth: This isn't the best time to try and scrape together 50 million pounds. Just ask Carol Plazzotta, a curator here at the National Gallery in London.

Carol Plazzotta: We've never had to raise this much before, ever.

'We' would be London's National Gallery and the National Galleries in Scotland. They need the 50 million pounds to buy "Diana and Actaeon," a painting by the Italian renaissance master Titian. Andrew Macdonald is Deputy Director of The Art Fund in London, which donated a million pounds to the cause.

Andrew Macdonald: It is one of the supreme masterpieces by arguably the greatest painter in the Western tradition.

The painting has been on loan to Scotland for 60 years, but now its owner, the Duke of Sutherland, needs cash, so he's given the museums until Dec. 31 to pay up, or he's selling to the highest bidder. As an added incentive, the duke will throw in a second Titian masterpiece for another 50 million pounds, that's $75 million U.S. But the museums don't have to pay that bill for a few more years. The paintings have been on display in Britain for the past two centuries, so long that the public can't imagine the U.K. without them.

Macdonald: They've kind of become part of the furniture, but of course they aren't actually owned by the public, that's the trouble.

People fall in love with these paintings, which might explain why they've changed hands just a few times over the last 450 years. Titian based them on Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and just in case you're a little rusty on your Roman poetry, and I know I am, Plazzotta explains.

Plazzotta: The story is based on the hunter Actaeon who inadvertently stumbles where no man should ever venture.

Titian captures the hunter as he innocently opens a curtain to reveal a half dozen bathing women, including the goddess Diana. The paintings ended up in Paris by the 18th century, where they stayed until, ironically, a financial crisis emerged.

Most people would like to keep them here, but they realize that the middle of a financial crisis may not be the best time to convince public and private donors to part with 50 million pounds. But Plazzotta says it's worth the effort.

Plazzotta: To be in the presence of such a work, a tear comes to my eye every, every time.

So the galleries have launched a celebrity-studded campaign to raise awareness and money; it includes Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall. She posed nude for a photographic re-creation of the painting to get Brits in a philanthropic mood.

Plazzotta: We are cautiously optimistic.

A change in the tax code might go a lot further than a naked TV star. Unlike the U.S., Britain doesn't offer tax breaks to people who donate artworks while they're still alive.

Macdonald: Unless you're dead, it can't happen.

So art owners like the Duke of Sutherland -- he's the one peddling the Titians -- must convince museums to buy them out, and the whole process has some Brits wondering why an Italian painting should be so important to their national heritage anyway.

In London, this is Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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