Keynes and the Degas Sale

Piling a clutch of French masterpieces into the back of his car, a young British Government official secured the paintings for himself-and a treasure-trove of others for the nation with borrowed money from a Paris under siege in the final hectic months of the First World War. The official was John Maynard Keynes - Anne Emberton tells the story of his coup de theatre and its impact on 20th-century British cultural politics.

Paintings by Manet, Corot, Ingres, Delacroix and other artists of international repute were auctioned at a sale in the Galerie Roland Petit in Paris on March 26th and 27th, 1918. These paintings had formed part of the private collection of Edgar Degas who had died the previous year. The sale was a particularly significant event in the life of John Maynard Keynes as it was here that he first entered the public arena on behalf of the arts. From this point onwards, despite heavy commitments as economist, writer and international negotiator, his support and sponsorship of the arts was to be unremitting and would finally culminate in his becoming the first Chairman of the Arts Council.

Keynes' reaction to the Degas sale reflects both his background and education and, more importantly, is a clear indicator of the pattern of things to come. As such, it was a significant event in his life and is deserving of considerably more attention than it has been given to date. Our information about Keynes' involvement in the sale is incomplete, relying as it does on his personal correspondence and on the memories of friends and contemporaries recorded, for the most part, many years after the event. There was also an element of secrecy which kept the British involvement in the sale out of the press. All of these features have led us to underestimate the skill Keynes employed in this his first effort on behalf of the arts. The time has come to look at all aspects of Keynes' involvement in the sale; to examine how and why he set about acquiring paintings for the National Gallery from the sale, and why he was perhaps the only person who could have achieved success.

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