25 September 2013

Selling off the family silver

With the courts on vacation in August and September, and the summer exodus to art fairs, there have been few if any developments in English art law, which is my best excuse for the lack of recent posts.
However, I have noticed that the press and campaigners are increasingly focusing on something that has been going on ever since the recession bit in 2008, namely the sale of art by cash-strapped local government and other publicly funded organisations.  Christies’ appraisal of the contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts has led to a fear that the museum will be closed and the contents sold as part of the city’s insolvency process.  In England, many local councils have sold, or at least tried to sell, some of their art, from Henry Moore statues in public places (Tower Hamlets) to, most recently, the Chinese ceramics in a local museum (Croydon).
The campaigners rightly point out that the objects were usually given or bequeathed by benefactors with the intention that the local public should enjoy them.  There is also a political view against “privatisation”, or “selling off the family silver” as Harold Macmillan famously termed Margaret Thatcher’s denationalisations.  On the other hand, it is the valuable luxuries that should be looked to first when times get hard and, if the money cannot come from art sales, it will have to come from some further cut in services.  In the case of an insolvent public body, there will be deserving creditors to be paid, including local suppliers, staff and pension funds.
There are of course legal problems.