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Chancellor lambasts ‘really stupid’ sale of painting

26 September 2014

chorley’s auctioneers

THE Diocesan Chancellor of the Gloucester, the Worshipful June Rodgers, sent out a strong message to Church of England clergy, churchwardens, parishioners, auctioneers, and antique dealers that they should not buy or sell any item belonging to a church unless they were sure that a faculty had been obtained from the diocesan chancellor, authorising the sale of the item in question.

The necessity of making the proper enquiries had been reiterated time and again in various judgments of ecclesiastical courts, she said, but it appeared to be consistently ignored by both churches and the antiques trade.

Any purchaser from a C of E church must ensure that the item was accompanied by a faculty, and no other "paperwork" or verbal assurances from the church, purporting to give permission to sell, would suffice, she said. Without a faculty, the property that a purchaser purported to have bought still belonged to the church from which it came; so the purchaser did not have ownership of it.

Disposal of church property without a faculty was akin to theft, the Chancellor said, and she would have no hesitation in involving the police if it were necessary to ensure that the property was recovered.

The Chancellor's warning was issued in the course of a hearing concerning the sale of a painting from Emmanuel Church in Leckhampton, Cheltenham. The Revd Jacqueline Rodwell, a non-stipendiary minister with pastoral responsibility for the church, said that her predecessor at the church had been of an Anglo-Catholic background, and not, as she was, Evangelical.

In about 1949, relatives were clearing out the home of a local couple, Thomas and Emily Bolland, who had died in 1946 and 1949 respectively. Among the items to be disposed of was a painting of the Madonna and Child, Mary, Queen of Heaven, by Franz Ittenbach (1813-79), a German Nazarene painter associated with the Düsseldorf school. His paintings have been sold at Sotheby's and other auctioneers for prices ranging from $27,500 to $64,000.

The painting was given to the church by the Bollands' relatives. Mrs Rodwell said that the painting was "deemed to be theologically inappropriate for the church", and was placed in a position where nobody but the presiding priest could see it. She said that nobody remembered the Bolland family, and that there was nobody local with that name.

The painting was moved in 2013 to accommodate a junction box, was left in the vestry, and then consigned to the junk store. It was proposed that the church should "just chuck it out with all the rest of the junk", but Mrs Rodwell thought that the church "might get some money for it".

In July 2013, Mrs Rodwell informed the churchwardens of the proposed sale, and one of them raised the issue whether a faculty should be obtained. That query was not taken further, however, and an auctioneer was contacted. Mrs Rodwell later denied that the term "faculty" had been mentioned, and had no idea that she had been told that a faculty was needed.

The auctioneer initially valued the painting at about £1000, but later revised the valuation, and, in the auctioneer's catalogue, £3000 to £4000 was estimated as a possible price for the painting. It was sold at auction on 28 October 2013 for a price of £20,000, to a London dealer.

By chance, the Archdeacon of Cheltenham, the Ven. Robert Springett, was visiting the church in December 2013, when he had a "rather horrid surprise" on being told for the first time of the sale of the painting, and the plans the parish had for spending the proceeds of the sale. The Archdeacon asked the parish for full details about what had happened, and immediate efforts were made to trace the painting, and find out whether it had left the country.

The DAC contacted the auctioneers, and, by then, the purchaser had already paid for the painting - and had spent more than £4000 on restoring it. Nevertheless, the purchaser gave an undertaking that he would not sell the painting until the Consistory Court had heard the application by Mrs Rodwell and the churchwardens for a retrospective confirmatory faculty authorising the sale of the painting.

The Chancellor, having heard all the evidence, said that the conduct of Mrs Rodwell and the churchwardens had been "dismal", and "really, really stupid", but they had not been dishonest. In their "misguided way" they supposed that they were acting for the good of the church. The auction was fair; an open market-price had been achieved; and the purchaser had acted honourably.

In the absence of any findings of dishonesty, the Chancellor said that it would not further the mission of the Church to order Mrs Rodwell, or the churchwardens, to pay the costs of the Consistory Court litigation personally. A confirmatory faculty was granted, authorising the sale of the painting, and it was declared that the purchaser, who had bought the painting in good faith, now had good title to it so that he could retain or dispose of it as he thought fit.

The Chancellor directed that her conclusions were circulated to various auctioneer and trade bodies, so that they were put on notice that no item from a consecrated building was to be sold, given away, or disposed of without a faculty, and that no private or trade purchaser obtained good title to any church property without a faculty authorising its disposal to the secular world.

Read the judgment in full here (PDF - will open in new window)

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