Cash-Strapped UK Council Considers Sale of $24-Million Francis Bacon Painting

The controversial sale could be blocked by the Contemporary Art Society.

Francis Bacon, Figure Study II (1945-46). Courtesy Kirklees Museums and Galleries artuk.org.
Francis Bacon, Figure Study II (1945-46). Courtesy Kirklees Museums and Galleries artuk.org.

Kirklees council in West Yorkshire may be selling a much-prized Francis Bacon painting from its collection to make up for a shortfall in government funding. The painting is currently valued at £19.5 million ($24 million), but experts said that, given the current prices of Bacon works at auction, the painting could fetch up to £60 million ($73 million).

The council is now seriously considering the sale, as it cannot afford the insurance payments required to display Bacon’s Study Figure II (1945-46). The council had to close two museums recently due to lack of funding and its looking into closing a third.

“In the dire circumstances the council finances are in, we have to consider selling artworks that the council has,” Andrew Cooper, Green Party councillor for Newsome told the Guardian. “We have got to look at using any money that we realize from it to protect essential council services.”

The local council believes that the painting would be better off in the hands of a person or an organization that can hang the work. Ideally, the work would be loaned to other UK institutions where it can be seen by the public. The painting’s companion, Study Figure I (1946), hangs in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. 

“I can’t see any value of owning a painting which is stuck in a cellar most of the time,” council leader David Sheard told the Guardian. ”I know recently it has been on tour, but there have been times where it has been in storage for a very long time.”

But selling the artwork might not be so simple. The Contemporary Art Society, which donated the painting to the Bagshaw Museum in Batley over 60 years ago, could potentially block the sale if it were to go ahead.

“The painting was a conditional gift from the Contemporary Art Society and the conditions of the gift means that it cannot be sold. This is in line with the Arts Council’s museum accreditation policy,” a spokesperson from the Society told the Guardian.

The sale of items from public collections by councils is a controversial subject. Last year, the sale of a much-loved Henry Moore sculpture, titled Draped Seated Woman (1957-58), by Tower Hamlets council in London was blocked by the courts, although the action was taken mainly in light of a corrupt local mayor.

Northampton borough council attracted much criticism after it sold an ancient Egyptian statue for £15.8 million ($19 million) in 2014. The UK Government slapped an export ban on the statue and tried to raise an equivalent bid from a British based buyer or institution, but it could not, and the statue left the country to join its anonymous buyer.

The council was subsequently stripped of its Art Council England accreditation and will not receive funding from it until 2019.

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