Fury over Herts council decision to sell-off £470,000 art collection

Composition On A Blue Ground II 1933 by Edward Wadsworth was sold for 19,000. Credit: Hertfordshire County Council
Composition On A Blue Ground II 1933 by Edward Wadsworth was sold for 19,000. Credit: Hertfordshire County Council

Council bosses' decision to sell-off 450 of its artworks has been slammed by a group of MPs as a "major cultural loss".

Hertfordshire County Council took the controversial decision to sell-off or give-away the bulk of its art collection in 2017.

Anne Redpath's Blue Plate was sold for 31,000. Credit: Hertfordshire County Council

Anne Redpath's Blue Plate was sold for 31,000. Credit: Hertfordshire County Council

And earlier this year more than 450 works were sold at auction – for a collective price tag of £469,282.

The county council intends to keep around 200 artworks from its corporate and schools loan collections, while hundreds more have been – or will be – given away.

But members of a cross-party parliamentary group focussed on art, craft and design in education say the council’s disposal of the works is a “major cultural loss”.

They say legislation surrounding the protection of cultural assets was “not adequate” in this scenario.

John Tunnard's Brandis painting was sold for 37,000. Credit: Hertfordshire County Council

John Tunnard's Brandis painting was sold for 37,000. Credit: Hertfordshire County Council

And the say the council’s actions have set a “worrying precedent for other local authority collections”.

Now they have written to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson, in a bid to stop other organisations taking similar action.

The letter – signed by group chair Sharon Hodgson MP, co-chair Tracy Brabin MP and vice-chair The Earl of Clancarty – states: “We firmly believe that all children and young people should have as much access to arts as possible, and that this decision will have far-reaching consequences for many years to come.

“It is wrong to take access to these original artworks away from the audience which their original purchase was intended for.”

In the letter the MPs also question the council’s decision to retain individual pieces of artwork depending on whether the are ‘relevent to Hertfordshire’ – saying “we do not expect libraries to only offer materials with a strong local cultural relevance”.

And they accuse the county council of ignoring the advice provided by art consultants throughout the process.

The MPs – from the APPG on art, craft and design in education – estimate that, after auctioneers fees have been deducted, the sale would have generated just £370,000 for the council.

They say that’s equivalent to around 0.046 per cent of the council’s annual net budget – which they dismiss as “a negligible one-off amount in comparison to the educational and cultural loss”.

Following the auctions earlier this year Hertfordshire County Council stressed that the funds raised from the sale would be used to improve the condition and the visibility of their ‘nationally significant’ sculptures and other artworks.

And in response to the comments made by members of the APPG they stress the decisions relating to the art collection were subject to consultation, before any action was taken.

“The APPG for Art, Craft and Design in Education has never contacted Hertfordshire County Council, unlike many stakeholders in the sector,” said a spokesperson for the county council..

“If they had, we could have fully explained the processes we have been through, including conducting a thorough consultation before the decision was taken.”

And commenting on the ongoing work to find new owners for the artworks, she said 175 works had already been gifted to educational bodies and local museums – with a further 800 to be given to schools, museums and community organisations in the coming weeks.

“These donations are all part of the county council’s ongoing review of its artworks, with this phase of the project aiming to ensure works can be taken out of storage and displayed as widely as possible to members of the public,” she said.