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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Church plans art treasure sale
Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral: Paintings bought 300 years ago
The Bishop of Durham has defended the Church of England's decision to sell one of its most valuable collections of paintings.

The Right Reverend Michael Turnbull told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the Church's financial problems means it has "not much option" but to sell the collection of paintings by 17th Century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran

The plan has provoked criticism from those anxious to keep the art together and in the UK.

However, the bishop rejected fears that the paintings, which hang in his official residence Auckland Castle, would most probably have to go to a buyer overseas.


The Church needs money and I don't think its commissioners have much option but to consider selling them

The Right Reverend Turnbull

The Prado Museum in Madrid is said to have already expressed interest in the Zurbarans.

"The Church needs money and I don't think its commissioners have much option but to consider selling them," said The Right Reverend Bishop Turnbull.

"Their charitable status suggests that they are there to help poor parishes and maintain the clergy of the Church of England.

"So keeping paintings in Auckland Castle is not doing much about that."

The Right Reverend Turnbull added that the insurance and security costs of keeping the paintings was an added burden on Church funds.

'Unparalleled'

The collection Jacob and His Twelve Sons have hung in the castle since the 18th Century when the then bishop Trevor bought them for just over 100.

They are on display to the public for about 80 days a year.

The director of London's National Gallery Neil McGregor told the Sunday Times newspaper that the Zurbarans were unique.

Bishop of Durham
The Right Reverend Turnbull says the art could stay in the North East

"The Zurbarans are unparalleled paintings," said Mr McGregor.

"I thought such remarkable paintings needed more public awareness. They are a great national treasure."

Derek Foster, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, is reported to have raised strong objections to the sale.

Mr Foster, a trustee of Auckland Castle, has written a letter of complaint about the proposed sale to the church commissioners.

But The Right Reverend Turnbull said that even if the sale did go ahead, it was not inevitable that the paintings would leave the UK.

"I don't think the only alternative is that they go overseas or to another part of the country," he said.

"It could be that the art world and the people of the North East could keep them up here and make them available to the public."

The sale still needs final approval later this month by the church commissioners' board of governors before it can go ahead.

A similar controversy was caused in 1988 when Hereford Cathedral tried to sell the Mappa Mundi, a medieval map of the world, for 7m.

The map was eventually able to remain in Hereford after Sir John Paul Getty, the millionaire philanthropist, donated 3m.

See also:

27 Jul 01 | Arts
Art treasures to stay in UK
25 Jul 01 | Arts
$40m art sale for charity
22 Mar 01 | Arts
Cash boost for arts
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