Over 4,500 artworks are owned by Iceland’s three banks—Landsbankinn, Arion Bank, and Íslandsbanki, RÚV reports. The National Gallery of Iceland did an inventory of Icelandic artworks owned by banks in 2009, just after the financial crash, and determined that banks owned nearly 800 “national treasures” that should return to state ownership. Little has changed in regards to the ownership of these cultural artifacts in the intervening decade, however, and the matter is becoming more pressing as the Icelandic government’s option to buy works owned by Arion Bank, at least, will expire in two years.
Under the guidance of then-Minister of Culture (now Prime Minister) Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Ministry of Culture commissioned the National Gallery to oversee an extensive survey of the cultural inventories of Íslandsbanki, Nýja Kaupþing (now Arion Bank), and NBI (now Landsbankinn) just after the economic collapse. Around the same time, there were extensive discussions as to what should be done with these collections, discussions that were even taken up in parliament. The National Gallery established three categories for artworks owned by the banks: works that are considered “national treasures” and should be returned to state ownership (category 1), works that the banks should continue to own but provide public access to (category 2), and works that banks should continue to own, but loan out at will, provided they have the approval of the National Gallery (category 3).
The categorized inventory was submitted to Katrín Jakobsdóttir in the winter of 2009. At the time, the banks collectively owned 4,286 works. Of these, 775 works were categorized as national treasures. Since the initial inventory, all three banks have acquired additional art—either through purchase or acquisitions in bank mergers—but sold very little. The banks have also made a few notable loans of artworks and also given a few artworks away.
In 2009, Landsbankinn (NBI) owned 1,953 artworks, 22 of which were protected by law. These protected works included frescoes by Jóhannes Kjarval and Jón Stefánsson, as well as mosaics by Nína Tryggvadóttir. Of the bank’s collection, 460 artworks by 90 artists were categorized as category 1 works, or national treasures. 235 by 85 artists were designated as category 2 works; 35 were designated category 3 works. As of today, the vast majority of these works, or 1,200 pieces, are in storage.
At the same time, it was determined that Nyjá Kaupþing (now Arion Bank) owned 1,238 artworks. Of these, 195 works by 71 artists were designated category 1 pieces, 170 works by 59 artists category 2, and 29 category 3.
Today, Arion Bank employees seem to share a common love of art, and a few hundred of them pay a monthly fee to take part in a twice-annual drawing, the winners of which receive a work of art from the bank’s collection. Prior to the drawing, the bank displays the prize work for several weeks as a way of introducing employees to the artist. The bank continues to purchase art, with particular emphasis on new works by Icelandic artists.
At the time of inventory, Íslandsbanki owned 1,095 works. Of these, 120 works by 50 artists were designed category 1, 57 works by 32 artists category 2, and 39 category 3. Today, the bank says it owns 668 artworks, 360 of which are paintings. The majority of these, or 440 works, are publicly displayed, while the remainder are in storage.
Time Running Out
Ten years ago, the Icelandic government made an agreement with Nýja Kaupþing in which it would have a twelve-year buying option on the artwork owned by the bank. This agreement, however, is set to expire in two years.