The Guardian reports that Kirklees Council is considering selling a painting by Francis Bacon. The picture, Figure Study II, is kept in storage the vast majority of the time – it depicts a subhuman eyeless creature. It is too valuable to be exhibited locally so it is stuck in the vaults of the Huddersfield Art Gallery. For insurance purposes it is valued at £19.5 million. But art experts estimate it could sell for three times that amount – so around £60 million.
The Council has closed two museums and is due to close another. In that context keeping this valuable painting that local residents can’t see does seem a curious priority.
Cllr David Sheard, the Leader of the council, said:
“I can’t see any value of owning a painting which is stuck in a cellar most of the time. I know recently it has been on tour, but there have been times where it has been in storage for a very long time.
“It is an issue that we need to have an open debate about as it is a problem if it is costing us so much to insure yet we’re not able to display it.”
The insurance costs are not likely to be trivial, even with the painting being drastically undervalued. We haven’t been given the figure, but say it is 0.5 per cent then that would be almost £100,000. Of course there would also be a far more substantial saving in the Council’s annual interest bill if its debt mountain shrunk by £60 million.
The Taxpayer’s Alliance has produced research which indicates that the state owns £3.5 billion worth of works of art – of which 97 per cent are in storage. The total estimate Kirklees Council provided was £25 million. Perhaps other councils (and branches of the state) have also underestimated the value of their art collections.
Certainly it is right to consider the wishes of those who donated art works. Sometimes there will be legal restrictions but there is also a moral issue. Can any of those who donated works of art have wished them to be hidden from view? As Sir Simon Jenkins has said it is the “hoarding instinct” which is immoral. Councils should either display their art works – or sell them.