- Associated Press - Thursday, March 1, 2012

LONDON (AP) - Two major British art galleries have raised 45 million pounds ($72 million) to buy a Renaissance masterpiece that has been in the U.K. for 200 years and keep it on public display _ a purchase announced Thursday as a substantial cultural victory in tough economic times.

Britain’s National Gallery contributed 25 million pounds to buy Titian’s “Diana and Callisto,” which it will own jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland. The rest of the money came from an art charity, lottery profits and private donors. The galleries did not appeal to the public for funds.

National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny said the purchase had used up most of the gallery’s 32 million pound reserve fund, accumulated from a century of bequests.

“It’s true we’ve depleted our resources very considerably by the acquisition,” he said. “But if we hadn’t taken this opportunity I think we would diminish our chances of further bequests in the future.

“I know some people might think, why not buy 10 lesser things, but I think the National Gallery was founded primarily as a collection of great masterpieces.”

The purchase means the painting will be reunited with its companion piece, “Diana and Actaeon,” which the two galleries bought for 50 million pounds in 2009.

The prices, agreed with owner the Duke of Sutherland, are only about a third of what the paintings have been estimated to be worth on the open market.

Robert Korzinek, a fine art underwriter at insurer Hiscox, said the paintings are among a select group of artworks whose market value is potentially sky-high.

“These incredibly rare pictures so infrequently come to market, and when they do there are oil-rich nations that are seeking to put masterpieces on the walls of their museums, and they have infinite buying power,” he said. “It has totally reset prices.”

John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, said they were “two of the greatest paintings in the world” and had always been meant to hang together.

Both works depict scenes from classical mythology. “Diana and Callisto” shows a nymph, impregnated by the god Jupiter, being expelled from the circle of Diana, goddess of the hunt.

It and “Diana and Actaeon” were painted by the Venetian master for King Philip II of Spain in the 1550s and came to Britain in 1798. They have been in the same aristocratic family ever since and form part of the Bridegwater Collection of Old Masters that have been loaned to the National Galleries of Scotland since 1945.

The Duke of Sutherland offered in 2008 to sell the works to public galleries, sparking a government-backed fundraising campaign. The galleries said he had agreed to knock 5 million pounds off the 50 million pound asking price for “Diana and Callisto.”

Penny said trying to buy both paintings had been a gamble, especially given the dismal economic climate. Britain is experiencing rising unemployment, sluggish growth and government austerity.

“There have been many times when we thought, we’ve started something we can’t finish,” Penny said.

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