They are the crown jewels in Yorkshire’s community chest – treasures from the past held in trust for generations to come.
But the cash value of the region’s civic art estate, whether on public display or catalogued on the internet and locked away in store rooms, has seldom been calculated.
As plans start to emerge for West Yorkshire’s biggest creative festival, a summer-long sculpture event in Leeds and Wakefield next year, figures from the county’s five district councils suggest that a windfall of around £0.3bn could be expected if every piece of public art was put up for auction, .
However, any suggestion of “selling off the family silver” has been met with howls of horror whenever it has been mooted.
And as the figures were added up yesterday, following requests under the Freedom of Information Act, councillors were quick to point out that not all of the hoard was theirs to sell.
“Much of it was gifted decades and even centuries ago. We are merely caretakers before passing it onto the next generation to enjoy,” said Coun Sarah Ferriby, Bradford’s executive member with responsibility for a collection that includes several valuable works by its former resident, David Hockney.
One piece alone in the Bradford collection – it has not identified the title or artist – is worth £4m.
In Leeds,the council’s leader, Judith Blake, said it had “no intention whatsoever of selling off the city’s family silver”.
She said: “These collections belong to the people. They are the result of the generosity of past generations of donors and philanthropists and we hold them in trust. We have a responsibility to protect and use the collections for public benefit, as illustrated by the 1.5m visitors who we welcomed to our museums and galleries last year.
“We are not in the business of diluting that wonderful offer.”
The collection in Leeds, put at £171m, is the most valuable in West Yorkshire and the fourth biggest in Britain, behind Manchester, Birmingham and Southampton. The art hoards in Bradford, Wakefield and Kirklees are put at between £42m and £47m, and Calderdale’s at £7m. However, less than 10 per cent of the collections are on public display at any one time – although the councils point out that exhibitions are rotated and some works loaned out to other galleries.
Kirklees Council provoked indignation in the art world 18 months ago when it raised the possibility of selling its most valuable exhibit, Francis Bacon’s 1940s painting, Figure Study II. The piece was valued at £20m but was tipped to sell for up to three times as much at auction, based on recent prices.
The idea was vetoed by the Contemporary Art Society, which had gifted the painting to the Bagshaw Museum in Batley – now part of the Kirklees district – more than 60 years ago, with a condition that prevented its sale.
The chief executive of Arts Council England warned that the treasures held by Yorkshire’s local authorities must not be undervalued,
Darren Henley, who was in Bradford last week, said: “It is really important that councils invest in their arts. Most councils have great works of art in their collections.
“People should be very careful about not valuing the art that Bradford and other Yorkshire cities have. It is part of their heritage. All big cities have strong arts collections, and they can’t display everything all the time.
“When Bradford loans its artwork out, it gets the name out there. People visiting other cities will see art that is loaned from Bradford – it is great for promoting the city.”
In 2006, Bury Council in Greater Manchester sold LS Lowry’s A Riverbank for £1.4m, in what the Museums Association termed “a dark day”.
And four years ago, Northampton Museum was accused of a “moral crime against world heritage” and stripped of its Arts Council accreditation, rendering it ineligible for funding, when it sold a 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue for £15.8m.
• Additional reporting by Tony Earnshaw, John Greenwood, David Spereall and Chris Young