THE Church Commissioners are to sell the historic Zurburán paintings that hang in Auckland Castle, the residence of the Bishop of Durham, it emerged this week.
The Commissioners hope to realise at least £15 million from the sale of the 12 paintings, which depict Jacob and his sons. They say that the money raised will be spent on ministry and mission.
News of the sale came from a leaked document seen by a local newspaper, and has provoked a furious reaction from within the diocese, including its former Bishop, Dr Tom Wright, who called the move “sneaky”.
But the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Tony Baldry MP, said on Tuesday: “We have to make tough choices. The Commissioners work to support the ministry of the Church across the country. We are not custodians of great works of art.”
He said that insuring the paintings each year cost the Commissioners in the region of £60,000. “We have a responsibility to manage our assets so as to produce an income for the benefit of the Church.”
The paintings are the work of a contemporary of Velázquez and El Greco, the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurburán. Painted between 1640 and 1645, they were acquired in 1756 for £124 by a former Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Richard Trevor, who had the long dining room at the Castle rebuilt so that he could display them.
Confirmation of the decision to sell the paintings is in documents obtained by the Northern Echo, which details how the Commissioners hired a London consultancy firm, Chelgate, to prepare the sale.
Its chief executive, Terence Fane-Saunders, confirmed this week that his company had been retained, but refused to release any more details.
The documents seen by the Northern Echo suggest that Mr Fane- Saunders charged up to £35,000 for his work over a four-month period to prepare for the sale of the paintings at Sotheby’s. The paper reports that the paintings were to be sold this December, but that this has now been put on hold. It also suggests that copies of the paintings would be commissioned to hang in their place, in the dining room of Auckland Castle.
The Commissioners attempted to halt the publication of the story, and engaged the legal firm Mishcon de Reya to put pressure on the Northern Echo.
Mr Baldry said that the Commissioners had always planned to consult the constituency MP, the council, and the Bishop of Jarrow, but they had to take legal advice on whether the paintings were considered fixtures and fittings of Auckland Castle and whether, therefore, listed-building consent was needed for their removal.
The advice that the paintings could be removed without consent had come in writing in only the past few days, he said.
“It had taken longer than anticip-ated to obtain advice on whether we needed listed-building consent to remove paintings. Unfortunately, some documents were released into the public domain inadvertently, before we could speak to the local MP and others about the sale.
“We understand that these paintings have a significant symbolic importance to the region, but it is only as a consequence of history we are looking after them. At the moment they provide no income and are simply costing money to insure.”
The official Commissioners’ line is that the paintings’ fate is undecided. A statement said this week: “The issue of the sale of the paintings remains under active consideration, though no sale has been arranged. A further statement will be made when we are in a position to announce final decisions with regard to their future.”
The decision to sell had been taken in 2001, the statement said. “Subsequently, in 2005, a further decision was taken to keep the Zurburáns 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.”
People in County Durham argue that they should have been consulted. A diocesan spokesman said that the news of the sale had hit the diocese “like a bolt from the blue”.
“People are very upset. We were told a year ago that the Commissioners would probably sell the paintings, but we haven’t heard anything since. We would hope they take local opinion into account, and for a lot of people in this diocese these paintings are very important.”
In an article for the Echo, Dr Wright wrote: “Londoners always think art belongs to them. If Durham Cathedral had wheels, someone would want to park it in Kensington.
“The Commissioners tried to sell the paintings five years ago. My wife and I fought to keep them. Now we’ve gone, they’re at it again. Like a losing footballer, they sneak back to shoot penalties when the goalkeeper’s away.
“What about the money, though? The Commissioners say this would release funds for church work. But, to them, £15m is tiny. They have massive assets. If interest rates fluctuate by 0.01 per cent, they gain or lose £50m overnight. The Zurburáns, in real terms, are a blade of grass in their ten-acre field.
“The North-East’s historic assets are propping up much of the Church of England. And now London wants to grab the one moveable asset we have left.”
The proposed sale has triggered anxiety about Auckland Castle itself. Questioned by the Northern Echo, Mr Baldry called the running costs “ludicrous”.
“We are reviewing all our see houses, including Auckland Castle. There is no secret about that. The issue is whether, in the middle of the 21st century, it is a practical and reasonable cost to maintain a bishop in a building built for a very different era.”