THE sale of the world-famous Zurbarán paintings that hang in Auckland Castle, the residence of the Bishop of Durham, is “overwhelmingly likely” to go ahead, the Church Commissioners have confirmed, despite public furore in the north-east over the proposed sell-off (News, 12 November).
Plans to sell the 12 paintings were first leaked to a local newspaper. The Church Commissioners had hired a London PR company to handle media interest in the sale, at a reputed cost of £35,000.
When news of the sale leaked out, it was put on hold — but only temporarily. The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, confirmed this week that the sale will go ahead, probably early next summer.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Whittam Smith said: “We have not pressed the button on commissioning a sale yet, but it is overwhelmingly likely we will sell them.”
The Church Commissioners have been advised that they could realise £15 million from the sale — a £5-million drop since they first tried to sell the paintings, five years ago. Public outcry then led Mr Whittam Smith to pull back.
He said: “It seems to me to be wrong to hold valuable Old Master paintings, which we have been told are worth at least £15 million, which are unremunerative. On £15 million we would earn £450,000 a year . . . and we would be able to distribute for poorer dioceses an extra £500,000, which is ten or 12 full-time clergy. That seems to us exactly the right thing to do.
“We are a charity with an absolutely clear charitable objective — to support and further the Church of England; we are not a heritage charity.”
The former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, has criticised the Commissioners, accusing them of wanting to rob the north-east of one of its greatest artistic treasures. “Londoners always think art belongs to them,” he said. Mr Whittam Smith insisted, however, that he would “cheerfully flog” any Old Masters in London, if the Church had any.
He also said that he had been open with the former Bishop — who now holds an academic post at the University of St Andrews — telling him earlier this year of the decision to sell the Zurbaráns.
Dr Wright said that he had been put in an “impossible position” and “forced to collude with a fait accompli” by the Church Commissioners.
He dismissed the claim that the paintings were being sold in order to support poorer dioceses. “They gain and lose far more than £15 million all the time without noticing, thus proving that their real aim is symbolic,” he said.