VALUABLE paintings in Southampton City Art Gallery’s overflowing £150m collection are to be sold off, the Daily Echo can reveal.
The move comes after the Daily Echo reported only 200 of the vast 3,500 collection can be shown in the gallery at any one time and some works have scarcely seen the light of day in recent years.
The council was also criticised last year for spending £250,000 on a painting by eminent 1960s abstract artist Bridget Riley entitled Red Movement.
However, the city’s leading cultural expert last night said the council would be “selling the family silver” and threatening Southampton’s reputation in the art world.
The revelation comes just days after councillors voted unanimously to hand out pay rises to 22 chief officers – five of whom earn more than £100,000. The decision was made behind closed doors and the council has refused to say how much they got, claiming it was confidential personal information.
Now the Daily Echo can reveal an independent curator was this week brought in to conduct an audit of the art collection – considered the finest outside London – to identify what can be sold.
Southampton City Council leader Alec Samuels said all works – including masterpieces by artists such as Turner, Lowry, Picasso and Monet – would be under review.
“We are very strapped for money,” he said. “We are always on the lookout to see if we have any assets that are not being used to their fullest advantage and, if so, might it be possible to make money from them and spend that money for the benefit of our people.
“This of course is not a very promising time for selling things, but it might be better to have the money and use it for something else than to have paintings just sitting in the dungeons.”
Once the audit is completed, fine art auctioneers will be invited to assess how much the works would fetch on the market and assist with their sale.
Councillor Samuels was keen to stress yesterday only works that can be legally sold would go under the hammer. Any art bought with monies bequeathed or granted to the council would stay in the collection. This is because the council does not want to threaten any funding through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the Arts Council or Heritage Lottery Fund.
Bury Council was stripped of its accredited museum status in 2006 after it sold off a Lowry painting for £1.25m too help balance its books.
Any cash raised from the sale will be pumped back into other leisure projects such as the proposed £30m Southampton heritage museum in the west wing of the civic centre.
However, John Hansard Gallery curator Stephen Foster said the collection was the Southampton’s most prized cultural asset and must be kept intact.
“There are works in there that are worth millions, including a very important Monet and a very important Turner and those works must be protected,” he said.
“It’s not just Southampton that would be losing its treasures, the country would be losing them to because Americans and the multi-billionaire Russian oligarchs will always outbid the British.
“Selling of the family silver to build something new is never a good idea.”
Mr Foster, chairman of Southampton Heritage and Arts People (SHAPe), added: “The collection has been put together as a result of other people’s money over the past 80 years and through visionary donations and endowments, therefore breaking up the collection would be regrettable.”
Labour leisure spokesman Derek Burke said: “It is Southampton’s crown jewels and it is the best gallery outside of London. I think it is very sad and it’s obviously not something we are in favour of.”
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