Gazing majestically over undulating parkland near Wakefield, the bronze figure of Old Flo appears bound to the landscape.
But the Henry Moore work – officially called Draped Seated Woman – could soon have a new home after 15 years on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Its current owner – the London borough of Tower Hamlets – is pressing ahead with a controversial plan to sell the 1-tonne, 8ft sculpture to offset sweeping cuts in government funding.
The case has ignited a furore about the ownership and value of public art as the spending vice tightens around local authorities.
Other councils such as Southampton, Bury and Bolton have also wrestled with the temptation of using art sales to raise funds. Northampton County Council has said it would sell a £2m ancient Egyptian statue, while two Victorian erotic paintings fetched about £2m for the Royal Cornwall Museum in 2010.
Artists, charities, local MPs and public figures such as Danny Boyle, the film director, have accused Tower Hamlets of flogging the family silver for the sake of a budgetary stopgap. Other local authorities, struggling with funding crunches of their own, watch the outcome closely.
Stephen Deuchar, head of ArtFund, a charity leading the campaign against the sell-off, said: “It would be tragic if this great work of art were discarded and a short-term cash need was filled by this irrevocable sale.”
Old Flo, whose style draws on Henry Moore’s famous Blitz “shelterer” sketches, has travelled far from her original home. At a time when artists were fighting to get their works out of galleries and museums and into public spaces, Moore sold the work to London County Council in 1962 for the knockdown price of £7,400, on the condition it was put on public display for east Londoners.
But in the intervening years, the LCC, then its successor the Greater London Council, were abolished, leaving the sculpture in the hands of Tower Hamlets from 1986. When the housing estate in which it was installed was demolished in 1997 – with the sculpture suffering from vandalism – the council loaned it to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Tower Hamlets in October announced its intention to sell Old Flo, citing “unprecedented” government budget cuts – provoking outcry among supporters of the arts who feared other councils may follow suit in a wholesale loss of local heritage.
Mr Boyle, along with Mary Moore, the artist’s daughter, Tate director Nicholas Serota and others, called on the council to relent in a letter to the Observer newspaper. “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,” they wrote.
The plot thickened in December when Bromley council challenged Tower Hamlets’ ownership of the work, saying it had inherited the work when the GLC was closed down, and demanding to see documentary evidence of its ownership.
Tower Hamlets told the FT it was in talks with ArtFund and Bromley but remained adamant about its intention to auction the work. “The council still aims to sell the sculpture at the earliest opportunity and will shortly agree a timescale for this with its auctioneers,” it said in a statement.
The payback could be considerable. Christie’s, the auction house approached for the sale, last year sold a reclining figure made by Henry Moore for the Festival of Britain for £19m to an anonymous buyer – a world record for the artist and much more than the £3.5m-£5.5m estimate. Though Old Flo is regarded as a lesser work, experts say it could fetch a multiple seven-figure sum in recognition of Moore’s status as one of the most important 20th century sculptors.
The Museums Association in the past stood against any sale of artefacts by collections, which were there to be conserved as a permanent historical and artistic resource. But it has relaxed its stance in the past five years, under two main conditions: the money should be reinvested in the museum for the long term; and the works sold should be peripheral to the collection.
For Old Flo, lying outside the protection of museum ownership, the future is less clear. But for some its aesthetic and emotional value is enormous.
Peter Murray, executive director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, said it would be “dreadful” if this “vitally important” work were lost to public view. “It has a tremendously powerful presence – it’s magnificent.”