A very jolly painter is Zurburan, it seems to me. I have always enjoyed his St Margaret in the National Gallery in London, not least because I was consecrated on her day in 1995. She wears a jaunty hat, and at her feet crouches the most amiable and stupid dragon you ever saw. It is as though she were taking her pet Chihuahua for a walk. There are not many works this great Spanish artist left in private hands. Now it seems the dealers are likely to have a field day.
Richard Trevor, Prince Bishop of Durham in the mid-eighteenth century, decided his castle needed a decent dining room. So he commissioned one which would house twelve paintings by the Spanish Baroque artist, Zurburan. There had been thirteen, Jacob and his twelve sons, but the Duke of Ancaster beat him to it over Benjamin. The dozen, which had been taken from a Naval prize ship, cost him £125. When the Commissioners were previously thinking about selling, the estimate was £20m. Now it is £15m, but still the Church Commissioners, scraping around to pay the salaries of the hundred and more Deans and Residentiary Canons for whom they pick up the tab each year, are planning to sell them off.
The local press got wind of this, so the tale is that the sale is just "under consideration". If they manage to sell — and there is great public opposition in the North-East, where the paintings are seen as part of the local patrimony — I hope they manage it rather better than some of their recent escapades in the market place. Even if the twelve paintings raise the expected £15m, that will only go a very little way to filling the gap left by their losses down the years, the most recent one, I believe, over Vodaphone. £50 million, was it?
Many years ago I organised the sale as Vicar of a ten-bedroomed Vicarage, and purchased a great replacement, easier to run but still with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a good study and space for a parish office. The diocese wanted to handle the sale, and were ready to accept an offer which would just match the price of the replacement house. In the event the Church Council and I managed the sale through a local agent, and raised an extra 20%. This profit was taken by the diocese, who still seemed ungrateful that we had taken the business out of their agent's hands.
I can imagine twelve Zurburans being snapped up by a dealer at what will appear to the Commissioners a great price, only for the dealer to sell them off one by one at enormous profit. That, after all, is what happened to the Cathedral Library in Truro, where the dealer who bought the books from the Dean and Chapter sold just one for more than he had paid for the entire lot.
Now this should be no concern of mine, except that the Church Commissioners pay our pensions. I would be sorry if they could not meet their pension obligations to members of the Ordinariate through failing to realise the full market value of the Auckland Castle paintings. Though perhaps if they do go for a song they will be ready to let former Anglicans buy their churches at knock-down prices? No, I don't think so either, but it is worth dreaming.
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