Sunday, November 14, 2010

CofE sells paintings
Church in secret plan to sell off £15m old Masters...and it gives thousands to public relations firm to handle predicted outcry
By Jonathan Petre
Last updated at 10:55 AM on 14th November 2010
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Up for auction? Zurbaran painting showing Jacob's son Naphtali
The Church of England has been secretly plotting the sale of one of its greatest treasures, a set of paintings worth an estimated £15 million, despite concerns the move will provoke a furore.

Leaked documents show senior officials are acutely aware there could be a backlash if the 12 paintings that have hung in the historic home of the Bishops of Durham for 250 years disappeared into the hands of a ‘billionaire from Russia’.

The confidential documents also reveal the Church Commissioners, the Church’s financial arm, have hired a London public relations firm for up to £37,000 to handle the predicted outcry over the sale.
The Commissioners, who include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, faced such a storm when they last raised the prospect of selling the paintings ten years ago that they were forced to shelve the idea.

Art lovers, MPs and even the then Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, expressed outrage that the collection of large canvases by the 17th Century Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran could be moved from its home and even broken up or sold abroad.

Now, just months after Bishop Wright stepped down, it can be revealed that the Commissioners have been preparing for a speedy sale of the works at Sotheby’s – a move denounced by the Bishop this week as ‘sneaky’.

The documents show the commissioners have hired Chelgate, a firm that specialises in crisis media management for upmarket clients, and have been briefed about how to handle hostile publicity surrounding the sale.

In a note drawn up last month, Chelgate chief executive Terence Fane-Saunders said: ‘In terms of public reaction, a future in which the paintings remain together, in this country, would be the most positive outcome.
‘Their break-up, or disappearance into the private collection of a billionaire in Russia, Japan or the Middle East would be much less acceptable to public opinion and would quite possibly stimulate criticism of the Church Commissioners.

This painting of Jacob was completed between 1640 and 1645
‘Other unattractive developments could include a situation in which the buyer (or dealer) rapidly “flips” the collection, selling on to an unnamed buyer at a significantly higher price.’

Mr Fane-Saunders suggested bad publicity could be minimised if a ‘friendly’ arts
journalist could be briefed. He wrote: ‘If we ensure that one friendly specialist journalist covers the story in depth, applying a helpful perspective, that should filter out across the rest of the nationals.’

In another section dealing with possible answers to a Press question about whether this was ‘a fire sale’, Mr Fane-Saunders expressed doubts about the suggested response of: ‘There is no fire. The Church Commissioners have £5 billion of assets and no borrowing.’

He wrote: ‘When many people are in financial difficulties, and with so much poverty and suffering being shown on our TV screens every day, is it wise for a Church to be flagging up its huge, debt-free wealth in this way?’

Mr Fane-Saunders also advises the Commissioners that Chelgate’s role in advising the Church should be kept secret.

According to the documents, the Commissioners were considering advertising the
collection in the Sotheby’s catalogue in November with a sale pencilled in for December.

However, a spokesman for the Commissioners said last night that although a decision had been taken to sell the paintings ‘in principle’, no date had been set. It is thought the sale could now take place in the New Year.

The spokesman said: ‘In the light of our obligation to support the work of today’s Church across the nation and, particularly, in areas of need and opportunity, we have to consider the sale of these paintings.

‘The capital from any sale would be invested to support the mission of the Church. Before that can happen, detailed procedures for the potential sale of the Zurbarans raise a number of important and complex issues and, until these have been resolved, no final decision or commitment for sale can be made.

‘The Church Commissioners announced, in 2001, the decision in principle to sell the Zurbaran paintings. Subsequently, in 2005, a further decision was taken to keep the Zurbarans for the next five years and review the possibility of a sale in 2010. That review has taken place and the agreement in principle was reached once again to explore the possibility of a sale.’

The paintings by Zurbaran, a contemporary of Velazquez and El Greco, were completed between 1640 and 1645 and depict Jacob and his sons from the Old Testament.

They were bought in 1756, reputedly from a pedlar, for £124 by a former Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, and have hung ever since in the long dining room at Auckland Castle, the imposing home of Bishops of Durham for 900 years.

A spokesman for the diocese of Durham said local people were ‘very upset’ that they had not been consulted.

Bishop Wright said: ‘The Commissioners tried to sell the paintings five years ago. My wife and I fought to keep them. Now we are gone they are at it again. Like a losing footballer, they sneak back to shoot penalties when the goalkeeper’s away.’

Art critic and author Mark Hudson said: ‘Zurbaran is one of the most important Spanish painters and he is becoming hugely fashionable over here.

‘This is exactly the wrong moment to start offloading these paintings and the wrong way for the Church to raise money. Every art gallery head in the country is going to be up in arms.’

The sale will also raise questions about whether the Church will now attempt to sell Auckland Castle.

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