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
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
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