When I saw on the front page of The Times on Thursday that we only had “four months to save £300m masterpieces” I was put briefly in mind of Dale Arden's desperate cry in Flash Gordon: “Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”
I assumed, you see, that something terrible was about to happen. I thought maybe there had been a fire in some gallery somewhere and that if the damaged pictures were not restored immediately then they might in some way cease to be restorable in 16 weeks (I do not know much about art restoration).
Or maybe it was to do with Venice. The big picture on the front page looked vaguely foreign (I do not know much about art either), and I thought perhaps we had only four months to move the church on whose wall it was painted before it was engulfed by the flood waters. Or something.
But it turned out to be nothing more than the old moneybags who inherited them being a bit short of the green and folding just now (join the club, old bean), and deciding to give us, the nation, four months to come up with £100 million to buy them off him.
Or what? He's going to burn them? Now that would be a tragedy. Something would have to be done. I can just see the Duke of Sutherland standing there, ringed by police, holding a flame-thrower to the painting's ear: “Throw the money down over there. Nice and slow. One false move and the Titian gets it!”
But that's not it. What is going to happen if the Government does not come up with the hundred mill for Diana & Actaeon and Diana & Callisto is that his grace is going to sell them for £300 million to some other mug, and they'll go abroad.
Who the hell cares? Art is not about ownership or geography. It is about values greater than time and space. I don't give a damn where a work of art is. I just care that it is. The Taj Mahal is in India (presumably) and the Mona Lisa in Paris, but I don't have to go and see them to enjoy the benefit of their cultural impact.
These two paintings are in no sense more artistically valid by being located in the National Gallery of Scotland than if they were sold to furnish the lobby walls of some hotel in Abu Dhabi. Indeed, I am personally more likely to bump into them there than where they are now.
It's not about the money: the Government could easily raise the cash by selling a big London hospital. It's about getting over the outdated habit of imperial rapine - the “Elginian fallacy”, if I may - that imparts meaning to the mere ownership of art.
If you want to see Diana & Actaeon, there was a perfectly good copy of it on the front page a couple of days ago. Just dig it out of the recycling bin and glue it to the fridge.
But I wouldn't bother - it's no more than a wan snapshot, caught leadenly on canvas as if by some teenage happy slapper with an iPhone, of what appears to be a poacher in very bad sandals coming upon an outdoor brothel for tubby-fanciers, and expressing his horror at the sight of a load of hefty girls with massive bums but no boobs at all - the nightmare combo.
I say we hold on to our hard-earned cash and let the Duke flog it to some crooked Russki so he can wallpaper his sauna.
*PLO = the Philistine Liberation Organization. For more, see this.