EMINENT British artist Bridget Riley has backed a campaign calling for Southampton’s great art sale to be stopped.

Riley became the 719th person to sign an online petition deploring the sale, which is expected to raise about £5m.

Ironically, it was the purchase of a Riley painting in 2006 that first sparked debate about whether it was time to sell-off works from the City Art Gallery’s overflowing collection.

The funding body that helped Southampton pay for the controversial £250,000 painting, entitled Red Movement, has also reacted angrily to the sale.

The Art Fund, which awards £4m in grants to museums and galleries each year, says it would set a precedent for councils across the UK to start selling off their collections.

As first revealed by the Daily Echo, the Tory-controlled city council wants to sell a sculpture by French master Auguste Rodin and a painting by English artist Sir A l f r e d Munnings.

The money will help pay for the £15m Sea City M u s e u m , which will feature a Titanic exhibition, expand the art gallery and showcase Southampton’s maritime heritage.

A London representative of Riley last night confirmed the abstract painter had put her name to the Save Our Collection petition By yesterday morning, 817 people had signed the petition, which will be presented to the city council in two weeks.

Riley’s painting was the most significant acquisition for Southampton in more than 30 years, but an Echo investigation subsequently revealed the vast 3,500-collection was uninsured and that many works hadn’t been shown for years.

The decision to sell the Rodin and Munnings – which has been on loan to an Essex museum for the past 20 years – followed a three-year Echo campaign for some art to be sold to fund new culture projects.

However, Andrew Macdonald, acting director of The Art Fund, which paid £80,000 towards Red Movement, called for the council to find the cash elsewhere to pay for the proposed museum.

“The Art Fund is in close touch with Southampton City Art Gallery about the proposed sale of works of art from its permanent collection, although as we understand it, no final decision has yet been made to sell either the Munnings or the Rodin,”

Mr Macdonald said.

“We are, however, concerned that if it does go ahead, this sale – however well-intentioned – will set an uncomfortable precedent, stretching the sector’s guidelines and effectively sanctioning the disposal of works of art from publicly-owned collections to support other areas of public sector cultural provision.

“We continue to hope that Southampton City Council will explore other avenues before seeking to raise funds through the sale of works of art from the City Art Gallery’s permanent collection.”

A public meeting is due to be held by the council this month to present its plans for the sale, however no date has been set.