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Welcome home, Mattia Preti

In a country where so much money is squandered on tasteless and garish embellishment, ghastly gimmicks and ephemeral art, to say nothing of master plans that never see the light of day, I find it rather frightening – and quite telling – that a minister is taken to task for purchasing a painting of national importance and enduring artistic merit.

So when eyebrows are raised by such august bodies as Heritage Malta and the Finance Ministry (an office all too often turning a blind eye), you really do begin to wonder where our priorities lie. But Gozo Minister Anton Refalo definitely knew his when, boldly entering the high stakes of the international art market, he bid successfully for a very fine Old Master painting. We are the richer for it, and the new Gozo Museum at Victoria now has its inaugural centrepiece.

My immediate reaction to last Sunday’s newspaper coverage was the feeling that the real story was the one behind the story. Malta Today’s decision to run with it as front page news was actually far more eyebrow-raising than the hammer-price at the auction. And if anything, Heritage Malta’s brouhaha and orchestrated ‘put-down’ of the painting were the only displays of self-serving indulgence.

You don’t need to be an expert to know that art at this kind of international level does not come cheap. But a fine painting has to be seen as an important investment – most of all as a thing of great beauty and as a cultural icon, but also as an appreciating asset, albeit one held in trust for the nation and never to be sold. The assertion in some quarters that other paintings were available at lower prices is wholly specious and hardly worthy of Malta’s national agency for conservation and cultural heritage.

This, surely, was a ‘must-have’, a ‘once-only’, and Refalo was right to go for it

Of course there will always be cheaper merchandise on the market, but this isn’t mattresses or insect screens we’re talking, and certainly not a two-for-one deal. Why duck out of buying a first-class painting – something that requires both courage and connoisseurship – and opt instead for a whole wall of mediocre daubing, deluding yourself that you’ve got more for your money?

Yes, this outstanding painting may have exceeded, in one blow, the cost of Heritage Malta’s acquisitions since 2014. But then you can’t compare a half-figure ‘studio’ painting with a full biblical narrative signed by the artist himself. When it comes to quality, the art of compromise gives way to real art. Besides, there is always the need to seize the moment: because once an Old Master is sold – especially to a national collection – it will never (or only very rarely) appear again on the market. Refalo, it seems, was not prepared to let this particular painting go. Knowing art and auctions as he does, he went that extra mile. And the picture, happily, came back to the Maltese islands. Welcome home.

Yes, its historic home. Because we’re talking here about a signed painting by the 17th century Calabrian master Mattia Preti, Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s First Dream. It’s an oil on canvas measuring 153 by 196cm and is dated to roughly 1670. This puts it squarely in Preti’s long and defining Maltese period (1660-1699). There was, of course, sufficient artistic merit to commend the painting from the start, but its national importance and supreme desirability became utterly compelling. This, surely, was a ‘must-have’, a ‘once-only’, and Refalo was right to go for it.

One wonders about the earlier provenance of Preti’s Daniel. Sotheby’s are not that helpful, saying only that it was from a private collection in London. So we have to assume that the picture has not passed through any major saleroom for at least 100 years. One would like to think – or perhaps would not like to think – that it was purchased out of a Maltese convent in, say, the 1870s, by some Englishman with a few guineas to spare.

After I read the story, I sensed that Heri­tage Malta’s decision to diss the decision and rain on the minister’s purchasing parade might have been its way of exacting retribution for the polemic that erupted in October 2016 when it was forced to defend its €75,000 purchase of a painting that may not be an original Preti after all. So much for professional rivalry – or rather resentment that a politician knows his art.

But perhaps what infuriated me most, especially in the online comments on the Malta Today article, was that a minister was being chastised for being an avid art collector and for using taxpayers’ money to finance his ‘passion’ and ‘pastime’. Aside from the fact that being an art collector is an art in itself and would be celebrated and enabled in another country, I’d much rather my taxes were spent on Malta’s patrimony in general and a Preti of ever-increasing value in particular.

At the risk of making things even ‘knottier’, what are we to make of the unlovely ‘knot’ in front of Castille or the more recent ‘eternal flame’? In view of the possible price-tag of a cool 600K plus, I think Refalo is the one who saw a bargain and deserves some credit. We should thank the minister for bringing this ‘trophy’ home, not berate him for being spendthrift.

The minister is again vindicated when one discovers that the Preti companion-piece, David Playing the Harp Before Saul, was sold for over $2 million in 2008! And he’s vindicated completely when reliable authority (not the minister’s) rates our painting superior by far.

Considering our country’s incredible knack for spending money on things that should be left alone, unlike MP Chris Said, I have serious doubts that the money would have been better spent elsewhere.

What would Mattia Preti (‘Playing the Harp before God’) make of all this hoo-hah, I wonder? He’d certainly congratulate Refalo on his excellent taste.

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