Sold for £1.4m - but fall out continues
By Peter Doherty
FIVE minutes of fevered bidding ended with Bury's Lowry painting going for twice its estimated price. The auction of A River Bank made £1.4 million, the second highest sum ever paid for a work by Lowry. It means that Bury Council can both balance its budget and complete the trouble-hit new library in Ramsbottom, with a bit left over too.
But the fall-out over the sale looks set to continue. The council has resigned from the Museums Association, in protest at being threatened with "disciplinary action" for selling its assets. It could also lose thousands of pounds a year in grants from the Museums, Libraries and Archives council (MLA), which meets next month to decide whether to strip Bury of its accreditation.
The painting was sold at Christie's for a headline £1,408,000, but that included the buyer's premium: the actual hammer price was £1.25 million. The council then has to pay VAT on the proceeds, which reduces the amount Bury gets to £1,070,000.
Councillors had already earmarked most of this: £500,000 is needed to balance the budget and £421,099 to meet the projected overspend on the Ramsbottom library. This leaves around £149,000, which bosses say they will decide how to use when the council sets its next budget in February. Chief executive Mark Sanders said: "Although the council regrets having to realise funds from its art collection, the alternatives such as even more redundancies and closure of valued services were more disturbing."
While L S Lowry was always associated with Salford, he was the second president of Bury Art Society and taught at the town's Arts and Crafts Centre. He painted A River Bank in 1947 and, four years later, the council bought it for £175.
Christie's say the painting took more than five minutes to sell, a long time in auctioning terms: the house can get through up to 60 pieces in an hour. It was expected to raise between £500,000 - the council's reserve price - and £800,000. Seven bidders were involved, with two bidding at any one time. It came down to two telephone buyers and a man in the room and the winning bid was from a UK private buyer via telephone. Bury's painting was one of 13 Lowry works that Christie's sold at the auction, for a total of £3.9 million.
Councillor Wayne Campbell, leader of the council, wrote to the Museums Association to explain the financial crisis Bury was in. The council made 50 redundancies earlier this year as part of a £10 million cuts package. "The council took the view that the sale of the Lowry, although extremely regrettable, was preferable to even more swingeing cuts and job losses which could well have meant the complete closure of the gallery and museum to the public," he said.
But Bury is not waiting to be censured. Mr Sanders said: "We've resigned from the Museums Association because their president, Charles Saumarez Smith, called us cultural vandals and said we were deeply irresponsible. "We thought this was intemperate language to use to one of their members. "Besides, they have a cheek to be lecturing us: they recently spent £8 million buying a painting from a northern gallery. "Is that not cultural vandalism against northern galleries?" He added: "We've got back our £125 registration fee, which I've given to our cultural services director to buy a local piece of art with." The MLA will meet on December 15 to decide whether Bury should lose its accreditation. If so, the borough would be only the second in the country to suffer this fate: the other was Derbyshire, which also sold a Lowry, and it took eight years to win back its status. Bury would lose around £25,000 a year in grants, which pays for educational work through the art gallery. It is now looking for outside sponsors for this. The MLA's accreditation scheme covers ethical and professional standards at 1,800 museums and galleries. Chris Batt, MLA chief executive, said: "Bury Council should have taken all possible steps to ensure that the painting was kept within the public domain. "The motives for the sale of this painting are in breach of the MLA accreditation scheme disposal policy, which now threatens their status with us as a registered museum, loss of which is a significant risk to their future access to funding opportunities." The MLA says that proceeds from art sales should be put back into a museum's collection, not to raise funds generally. Mr Batt added: "We have consistently advised the council that they could first have offered the painting for sale to other museums rather than offering it on the open market. "This still would have been a loss to Bury but would have been a preferred option and kept a publicly owned asset within the public domain."
Carole Souter, director of the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: "It is very sad that Bury Council has felt it necessary to take this step. "The fund asks all its applicants to follow the guidance of relevant professional bodies. "In this case that guidance has unfortunately been rejected."
How the figures from A Riverbank sale stack up
Lowry's A River Bank, bought by Bury Council in 1951 for £175.
Painting sold at auction at Christie's on Friday, November 17, for £1,408,000
Buyer's premium of £158,000 deducted, making £1.25 million
Council to pay VAT of 17.5 per cent on proceeds, making amount that Bury gets £1,070,000
£500,000 needed to balance the council budget
£421,099 to be used to meet projected overspend on Ramsbottom Library
£149,000 left over. Decision to be taken on how that will be used when council sets budget in the New Year