Valuable sculpture isn’t safe here, council told

The statue displayed in Yorkshire. Pic: London Borough of Tower Hamlets

A sculpture owned by Tower Hamlets but on loan to Yorkshire for over 15 years may be auctioned off because it is too tempting a target for metal thieves.

Council officers said it would be too dangerous for Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ to ever return to the area, calling it “uninsurable”, and recommending it be sold at auction to help deal with budget cuts.

The borough Mayor’s cabinet will discuss the future of the piece, which could be worth up to £17m, on October 3.

The officers’ report reads: “A large piece such as Draped Seated Woman may prove attractive to metal thieves who are quick and resourceful in their endeavours…There is no position within the Borough’s portfolio that is without high risk of its theft. Furthermore, because of this risk and the value of the work, it is not insurable.”

Local Conservative councilor Tim Archer persuaded the previous Labour council in 2010 to “consider all realistic options” for the fate of the 1500kg statue, after the Canary Wharf Group offered to house and insure it.

But officers have now concluded that open display in Tower Hamlets is “no longer a realistic option”, and that the costs of protecting it would be better spent on housing, education or youth services.

The report goes on: “Henry Moore artworks have generated considerable receipts when offered at auction, particularly to an international audience.

“Whilst the sculpture is safe in its temporary Yorkshire home, it is of no benefit to the people of Tower Hamlets who cannot see it nor have any advantage from it…If the sculpture is sold it will generate a substantial capital receipt which can be used for the immediate benefit of the local community.”

It discourages display at Canary Wharf because: “Whilst the Tower Hamlets community would have access to the artwork, the Canary Wharf Estate would have the benefit of a prestigious artwork without having to purchase it.”

The sculpture was bought by London County Council for £6,000 in 1962 and Moore, the son of a Yorkshire coal miner, insisted it be displayed only in deprived locations to enrich the lives of those living there. When the estate that housed it was demolished, ‘Old Flow’ – as it was known by locals – was laned to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1997.

It arrived bearing damage from vandalism and covered in graffiti after its 35-year stretch in east London, and allthough the deal elapsed in 2000, a spate of sculpture theft across the UK meant a return was considered too risky.

An investigation by EastLondonLines this January found that scrap metal theft is endemic in the area. Even outside London, a £3m sculpture was stolen from the grounds of a Hertfordshire museum and never found, while in December last year a valuable piece by Barbara Hepworth disappeared from Dulwich Park.

Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman said: “We are faced with a stark choice in these times of recession. Do we keep this valuable sculpture in Yorkshire or do we try to sell this globally important artwork in order to release much needed funds to invest in local heritage projects we can sustain, affordable housing, improving opportunities and prospects for our young people and keeping our community safe?

“If returning the sculpture to this borough is not a realistic value for money option we need to give serious consideration to selling the artwork.”

Last year Bolton Council put up 35 works to be sold, including works by Millais and PIcasso, while Bury Council raised £1.4m in 2006 by selling L.S. Lowry’s ‘A River Bank’ at Christie’s.

Councillor Rania Khan, cabinet member for Culture, said: “We are saddened that the options to return the sculpture to Tower Hamlets are not without significant cost. It is only due to the impact of government cuts…that we are considering selling the statue.”

Read the full report here.

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