Deposition from the Cross (around 1190-1200). Photo: © Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The U.K.’s under-secretary of state for arts and heritage, Stephen Parkinson, has temporarily withheld the export license for an exceptionally rare 12th-century ivory statue. Deposition from the Cross (ca. 1190–1200) was sold privately by Sotheby’s to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York late last year for more than $2.5 million, on the condition that it would be granted an export license.

The piece had been on long-term loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from 1982 until late 2022, and the museum or any other buyer based in the U.K. now has until February 2 to either match the Met’s offer or signal their serious intent to raise the necessary funds. In the latter case, the deadline could be extended by an additional four months.

Parkinson’s decision was made on the advice of the U.K.’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest. Their report said the statue is “one of the most culturally and aesthetically significant objects” they have reviewed in recent history, according to The Art Newspaper.

One member of the committee, Tim Pestell, an archaeologist at Norwich Castle Museum, said the Deposition is “a truly remarkable object, both for its early date and its sublimely skilful carving.”

The seven-inch ivory piece was likely carved in York from a particularly large chunk of walrus tusk and was one part of a larger tableau, perhaps an altarpiece, representing the Passion of Christ. In this section, Jesus is being tenderly brought down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea. A smaller ivory piece representing Judas at the Last Supper that is thought to be from the same group was donated to the V&A in 1949 and, until recently, was displayed beside the Deposition in the museum’s medieval galleries.

The V&A has not confirmed whether it has any plans to acquire the Deposition. “We are aware of the temporary export bar on the walrus ivory carving of the Deposition from the Cross and recognise the unique historical and artistic significance of this rare piece,” a spokesperson for the museum said in a statement.The only corresponding piece to the Deposition is the fragmentary carving of Judas at the Last Supper which is in the V&A collection and was the justification for the Deposition remaining on loan to the V&A for 40 years.

The Deposition was consigned to Sotheby’s by the London-based collectors John and Gertrude Hunt but its earlier provenance remains shrouded in mystery.


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