Why shouldn't Tower Hamlets sell off its £20m Henry Moore?
London council's decision to cash in on sculpture donated by the artist has provoked howls of anguish
AN EAST LONDON borough confirmed last night that it will go ahead with the sale of a Henry Moore sculpture that has been valued at between £5-£20 million, despite the opposition of local residents and a high-profile campaign by art world grandees such as film director Danny Boyle and Tate gallery director Sir Nicholas Serota.
The Daily Telegraph reports that Lutfur Rahman, the independent mayor of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, overruled a recommendation by fellow councillors that the statue – Draped, Seated Woman, known as Old Flo – should not be sold.
"It is with considerable regret that I make this decision but I have a duty to ensure residents do not suffer from the brunt of the horrendous cuts being imposed on us," Rahman said.
The council has also pointed out that "the cost of insuring the sculpture and threat of vandalism and theft has proved to be unreasonable".
Moore, a life-long Socialist and miner’s son, sold the work to Tower Hamlets in the 1960s for £6,000, well under its market value, “on the understanding that it would be on open-air display to enrich the lives of people in a socially deprived area of London”.
It originally sat in a housing estate in the borough, but since that was demolished in the 1990s it has been on loan to the Yorkshire Scuplture Park in Wakefield.
The proposed sale by Tower Hamlets was the subject of a protest letter to The Observer last Sunday from Boyle, Serota and the area's Labour MP Rushanara Ali among others.
Boyle, who found additional fame this summer when he directed the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, has reacted angrily to Rahman’s decision.
"The value of art is diminished by being monetarised,” he said. “The Moore sculpture defies all prejudice in people's minds about one of London's poorest boroughs. That alone makes it priceless to every resident."
Bethnal Green and Bow MP Ali attacked "the Mayor [for] going against the desires of the over 1,500 people who have signed the petition in just a few days. This is a betrayal of the East End's working-class heritage."
However, not everyone is as scathing about the decision. Andrew Shoben, Professor of Public Art at Goldsmith's art college in London, told the BBC that he sympathised with the council.
"It's their asset, they're entitled to sell it," Shoben said. "Councils are desperate to find as much money as they can. Don't get me wrong, Henry Moore's work is phenomenal, but they could sell this work, it could still remain in the public domain and they could invest in new and exciting public art."
But art critic Jonathan Jones warns in The Guardian against councils expecting to cash in on artworks, as Bolton council did recently with a painting by John Everett Millais.
"Cuts in public services are happening every day. Meanwhile, art prices keep going up," Jones writes. "You can see the temptation, imagine the rhetoric – shouldn't we sell that poncy painting if it can keep a library open?
"It sounds like a good case – but it doesn't work. Most works of art in local collections are like the Millais that Bolton got rid of: important, historic, even beautiful, but unlikely to fetch the millions that might impact on a council budget."