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Faculty to sell work of art refused

02 January 2015

HEXHAM ABBEY

WHEN the sale of a work of art might result in its loss to the nation, and there was no financial emergency facing the church that owned it, the strong presumption against the disposal of church treasures had not been outweighed, Chancellor Euan Duff ruled in Newcastle Consistory Court. He therefore refused to grant a faculty for the sale of a painting belonging to St Andrew's, Hexham (Hexham Abbey).

In 2012, the then Rector, Canon Graham Barham Usher, and two churchwardens sought a faculty permitting the sale of a painting that had been an anonymous gift to the abbey in 1947. The painting was Descent of Christ from the Cross (also known as The Deposition), from the workshop of the 16th- century Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst.

From 1947, the painting hung in the abbey - first, in the Ogle Chantry, and later in St Etheldreda's Chapel. In 1989, owing to concerns about security and insurance costs, a faculty was obtained to lend it to the Shipley Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. It had not been on display there for some time when, in 2011, the gallery informed the abbey that it no longer wished to store or insure the painting. Other museums and galleries in the area declined the abbey's offer of a loan of the painting.

It was then removed to Christie's for research, and it was established that the painting was the central panel of a triptych. The right wing of the triptych is of St Mary Magdalene, and the left of St Joseph of Arimathaea, and both wings are now in the United States of America, at the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Christie's suggested that, if there were to be a sale of the painting, it should be offered privately to the Legion of Honor at a figure that would net £150,000; and that, if a private sale could not be negotiated, it should be auctioned at Christie's, with an estimate of £100,000 to £150,000, and a reserve of £80,000.

The Church Buildings Council opposed the sale. The painting had no particular significant historical connection with the abbey, and was "simply . . . a generous and valuable gift", 67 years ago. In the context of the history of a church which extended back to AD 674, it was a recent acquisition. Until the painting came to Hexham Abbey, it had no particular connection with the north-east of England. Nevertheless, that was undoubtedly true of many works of art displayed in museums and galleries in the area, the Chancellor said.

The strongest argument for the sale of the painting related to its sale to the Legion of Honor. Such a sale - or, indeed, loan - would have the effect of reuniting the constituent parts of the triptych. The Chancellor said that the desirability of such reunification was self-evident. The triptych must have been intended by the artist to be displayed as such rather than in its separate constituent parts. On the other hand, the central panel owned by the abbey could be viewed perfectly well in isolation, and clearly had artistic merit of its own.

Set against the benefits of reuniting the triptych was the fact that, realistically, the abbey's paint- ing would be lost to the nation. While "globalisation is an increasing phenomenon, and travel, even to places as far away as San Francisco, is much easier than in bygone years," the Chancellor said, "none the less, any work of art going abroad diminishes the nation's heritage."

It was not suggested that there was a financial emergency facing the abbey. If there were a financial problem in the future, then it could be addressed at that stage.

The Chancellor said that he had to ask himself the question: "Have the petitioners demonstrated factors of such qualitative weight as to outweigh the strong presumption against sale?" His conclusion was that the only proper answer was "No."

There remained the question for the PCC, what should be done in relation to the painting. It was not up to him to make positive suggestions at this stage, the Chancellor said, but its starting point ought to be the retention of the painting, and its visibility either in the abbey or elsewhere locally, or at least nationally.

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