BBC News

Councils face dilemma over selling art

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

image copyrightAFP
image captionSekhemka was gifted to Northampton's museums by the 4th Marquis of Northampton in 1880

A 4,000-year-old Egyptian statue has been sold by Northampton Borough Council for nearly £16m - and there are calls for more local authorities to cash in on their art and artefacts as councils come under financial strain.

But sales from public collections are heavily frowned upon in the arts world because it is seen as a betrayal of those who originally donated the items and a deterrent to others who may donate in the future.

In Northampton, part of the money from the Sekhemka statue, which was only expected to fetch between £4m-£6m, will go towards building a museum extension with new galleries, shops and cafes.

Council leader Cllr David Mackintosh said the statue had not been on display for four years - and no-one had asked to see it in that time.

"It's been in our ownership for over 100 years and it's never really been the centrepiece of our collection," he told BBC Look East. "We want to expand our museum and to do that we need to raise the money."

But David Verey, chairman of the Art Fund, said council's arguments were "very, very thin".

"The cash will disappear within a year, so it's gone," he said. "The chances are that the object will go into a private collection, never to be seen again, or probably not for a very long time."

The auction comes as more and more local politicians call on their authorities to follow Northampton's lead.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHenry Moore's Draped Seated Woman has been on loan to Yorkshire Sculpture Park since 1997
image copyrightAFP
image captionChinese ceramics owned by Croydon Council raised £8m last November

Here are other places where councils have sold artworks, or where there have been suggestions that they should:

  • In 1962, Henry Moore's 1.6 tonne bronze sculpture Draped Seated Woman, nicknamed Old Flo, was put in a council housing estate in east London. By 1999, it was moved after being vandalised. In 2012, Tower Hamlets Council decided to sell it for an estimated £20m to make up for "unprecedented government cuts". But a legal challenge over its ownership has held up the sale.
  • Antique Chinese ceramics owned by Croydon Council sold for £8m at auction in Hong Kong in November. The council said the money would go towards redeveloping the Fairfield Halls arts centre. But the Museums Association accused the council of "asset stripping" and repealed Croydon's membership, while Arts Council England revoked Croydon Museum's accreditation for five years.
  • Southampton City Council planned to sell "one or two substantial pieces" of art that were not central to its core collection in order to pay for £2m roof repairs to the city's art gallery. But a petition was set up to oppose the plan, claiming any sale would have "catastrophic and damaging consequences". Four years ago, the authority also suggested selling art to raise money for its Titanic Museum.
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDavid Hockney objected to suggestions that his native Bradford could sell council-owned artworks
  • In November, opposition Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors in Bradford called on artworks to be sold to fund essential services after it was revealed that the council had underestimated the value of its collection. That led Bradford-born David Hockney to tell the Bradford Telegraph & Argus: "I've almost given up on Bradford. This would do it."
  • Last month, a Carmarthenshire MP called on the local council to re-examine the 2,500 works of art it keeps in storage. Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP Jonathan Edwards told the Llanelli Star: "We have seen parks, toilets and sports fields given away, and public services cut or out-sourced to save money. I want the council to at least explore the value of this collection."
  • In February, the Derby Telegraph reported that charities in the city had called for the council to sell off parts of its £64m art collection. John Moore of HIV charity Derbyshire Positive Support, which had its £77,400 council grant entirely cut, told the paper: "I will have to start selling things I own, my treasures, in order to provide. Why can't the council?"
  • In both Nottingham and Kirklees, which includes Huddersfield and Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, opposition Conservative councillors have called on the authorities to sell parts of their art collections in the face of budget cuts. But Cllr Dave Trimble, Nottingham's portfolio holder for leisure and culture, told the Nottingham Post: "The heritage and artistic value of our art collection - much of it gifted to the city in perpetuity - outweighs its financial value."
  • In 2011, Bolton Council decided to sell 35 works by artists including Robert Gemmell Hutchison and John Everett Millais to fund a new art storage depot because the old one was leaking and crumbling, and there was no other way of paying for a new one.
  • In 2006, Bury Council sold a painting by LS Lowry for £1.25m to fund core services in the face of a £10m budget shortfall. It was expelled from the Museums Association, meaning it had limited access to grants. But the council said it was able to find funding elsewhere and there was no reduction in donations from benefactors.

Related Topics

  • Art

More on this story

  • Northampton Sekhemka sale 'catastrophic' says Alan Moore

  • Cash-strapped local councils sell artworks