THE leader of Southampton City Council has laid down an ultimatum in the city’s art sell-off row – we either flog some paintings or don’t get a Titanic museum.

Tories are planning to sell paintings worth millions to help pay for a “world class” maritime attraction, dubbed Sea City Museum.

They face a race against time to get £15m to build the museum by April 2012, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy, which claimed the lives of 549 city residents.

Only 200 of the city’s vast 3,500 collection of paintings, worth around £180m, can be shown in the art gallery at any one time and some works have hardly seen the light of day in years.

Opposition councillors have slammed the proposed sale as a “betrayal of public trust” that would leave the reputation of the city’s museums in tatters.

Liberal Democrat group leader Jill Baston said: “I don’t believe its in the interests of the heritage of our city to diminish that very heritage we should be working to protect.”

Labour economic development spokesman Councillor Sarah Bogle added the plan was like “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

But veteran council leader Alec Samuels insisted: “If we don’t sell some paintings we don’t get a heritage centre. We’ve made our choice.”

He said: “No picture will be sold if it’s unlawful to do so. And if it were to be sold it would go to an appropriate good home.”

Tory Cabinet member for art and heritage Councillor John Hannides said it was right to look at selling some of the paintings.

A review of the gallery’s collection – which includes masterpieces by Turner, Lowry, Picasso and Monet – will be carried out over the summer to identify paintings which could be sold.

Cllr Hannides said museum and art bodies were happy with the council’s approach.

Award-winning architects Wilkinson Eyre have been hired to draw up plans for the museum, which will be built in the west wing of the Civic Centre and feature a massive climb-aboard replica of the doomed liner.

Visitors will experience life on board the ill-fated voyage from the perspective of the crew, many of whom were from Southampton.