Should the State pay £100 million (which is a bargain by current market standards) to stop two great Titians being sold overseas? We've had the benefit of these paintings being on public display since 1945 in the Bridgewater Collection in the National Gallery of Scotland (and they are remarkable paintings - I've seen them), but that could be about to be withdrawn if the money can't be found.
Watch a short video about the paintings (1 min 33 seconds)
Psychologically the withdrawal of art that is already on public display feels much worse than missing an opportunity to expand a collection. The paintings' removal will be a great loss for many. Yet £100 million is a large enough sum to save or at least substantially improve many lives if it were invested in health care or in good social housing, or to stimulate contemporary artists if it were used to found an arts centre. Great paintings have become so expensive to acquire that this question is coming up every few years: when resources are scarce, could we justify State expenditure at this sort of level on paintings? The truth is, though, that the Government is unlikely to come up with this amount of money for these paintings.
Mark Rothko used to ask the question: if a house is on fire and you could only save a Rembrandt painting or a child, which would you do? He thought the answer was obvious: you should save the child. He's surely right about this.
It would be great if philanthropists could step in to solve our problems here and buy the paintings for the nation. But if they don't, the price tag is so high that, much as I love the paintings and believe that our museums are central to our cultural life, I don't believe it could be justified as a State expense when our social services still lack funds.
Perhaps someone should change the law so that hereditary peers can only keep their titles if they give at least one great painting to the nation every generation.