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Tower Hamlets Council plans to sell Henry Moore sculpture

Date uploaded: November 7, 2012

Last month, Tower Hamlets Council announced it would sell the bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman after "unprecedented" budget cuts - of £100 million per year over the next three years. The figure, which could fetch £20 million, was bought by the former London County Council in 1960 for £6,000.

The bronze sculpture was installed on the Stifford council estate in 1962 but was vandalised and moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1997.

In October this year, Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman announced his decision to sell the sculpture: "It is with great regret that I take this decision but we are faced with a stark choice in these times of recession."

However, Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate Gallery and Oscar-winning film director Danny Boyle, who directed Slumdog Millionaire and the spectacular opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, are among leading arts figures who have written an impassioned letter to the Observer stating that the proposal "goes against the spirit of Henry Moore's original sale". Henry Moore sold the sculpture at a fraction of its market value to the former London County Council on the understanding that it would be displayed in a public space and might enrich the lives of those living in a socially deprived area. Sir Nicholas called the sculpture "one of Moore's most important and largest single figures... a figure of great dignity and humanity... This £20m, if it is as much as £20m, will only make a small contribution to that overall problem. It's a one-off, selling the family silver," he told the Observer.

The letter was led by the artist's daughter, Mary Moore, with other signatories including artist Jeremy Deller, architect David Adjaye, Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Henry Moore Foundation and Peter Murray, director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

"While we understand the financial pressures that Tower Hamlets faces, we feel that the mayor's proposal goes against the spirit of Henry Moore's original sale to London County Council at a favourable price on the understanding that it would be placed in East London," they said.

"The presence of the sculpture in Stepney was a demonstration of the postwar belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality.

"We appreciate that times have changed and that the costs of protecting the sculpture are demanding, but we believe that there are a number of sites in the borough where the work could be safely placed for the benefit of the community.

"We hope that Tower Hamlets will reconsider and find a suitable location that continues to honour Moore's idealistic vision."

The Council said the rising threat of metal theft and vandalism made it too expensive to insure the artwork, should a suitable public venue be found on council land. Tower Hamlets Council had considered moving Draped Seated Woman to private land in Canary Wharf but has instead chosen to "explore options" for a sale. Speaking in October, a Council spokesperson said: "As the borough does not have the funds required to insure or maintain the upkeep of the work, releasing these necessary funds will enable the council to support front-line services."

Metal theft has become a major problem in recent years. In 2005, a large Moore work was taken from the foundation in Hertfordshire, while a sundial by the artist was removed from the same location this July. Last December, a bronze work by Barbara Hepworth was stolen from Dulwich Park in south London.

The sculpture was expected to be auctioned by Christie's in February 2013. No valuation has been made but Tower Hamlets said estimates had ranged from £4m-£17m. The last significant case of a council auctioning artworks to meet budget shortfalls was in 2006, when Bury Council was expelled from the Museums Association for selling an LS Lowry painting for £1.4m. The Museums Association said it could not act in this instance because Draped Seated Woman was an individual piece of public art and not part of a museum collection.

However, the Museum of London has stepped in and, in a letter dated 23 October 2012, Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London, wrote to Councillor Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, suggesting the long-term loan of Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman to the Museum of London for public display either internally or externally. Click here to read their press release.

Commenting on the campaign to halt the sale of the sculpture Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London, said: “The Museum of London’s offer to put Draped Seated Woman on free, public display would enable everyone to enjoy and derive meaning from this significant artwork. As the leading museum for London we would help build an enduring cultural legacy for the affectionately named Old Flo. As Henry Moore’s daughter Mary said in her letter to the Observer, this art work was created with ‘the belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality’. I firmly support this idea which echoes our purpose at the Museum of London to preserve the heritage of our capital city for everybody without prejudice.”

Adding his support, Sir Nicholas Serota said: "I strongly support your suggestion that Henry Moore's Draped Seated Woman be placed at the Museum of London, Docklands at West India Quay where it could be seen by the people of East London and visitors, as intended by Henry Moore at the time of his gift. If the sculpture conservation team at Tate can assist in helping to supervise the move of the sculpture from Yorkshire and its installation we would be happy to do so, though I imagine that the Henry Moore Foundation would also wish to support your initiative."

Tower Hamlets will make its final decision about Moore's sculpture on Wednesday 5th November. A spokesman said: "Like other councils, we are considering how best to use our assets to generate much-needed funds to invest in local heritage and priority projects."

'Draped Seated Woman' 1957-58 bronze (LH 428) sited at the Stifford estate, Stepney c.1962

'Draped Seated Woman' 1957-58 bronze (LH 428) sited at the Stifford estate, Stepney c.1962