Sale of $32 Million Moore Must Be Stopped: Martin Gayford

'Draped Seated Woman'
"Draped Seated Woman," a bronze made by U.K. sculptor Henry Moore in 1957-1958. The late artist, a socialist who supported social housing, sold it to a London council for much less than its market price in 1962 as the centerpiece of a housing complex. The work, now in Yorkshire, may now be sold, against the wishes of Moore's daughter. Photographer: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images via Bloomberg

Bureaucrats will today decide whether to go ahead with the sale of a Henry Moore sculpture -- a decision which has put them at odds with London’s art world.

Moore’s “Draped Seated Woman,” better known as “Old Flo,” belongs to the public and has an estimated market value of as much as 20 million pounds ($32 million). A sale would be idiotic and rob London of a bronze work that is part of its history.

Last month, the Council of Tower Hamlets in East London decided to “explore the possibility” of the disposal of the 1.7-ton bronze.

Even the best of public sculpture isn’t popular with everybody. While Michelangelo’s “David” was being installed in Florence in 1504, vandals threw stones at it. At no point, however, did the civic authorities try to sell it off because it was too expensive to insure, and because they could use the cash for other purposes.

This is the threat faced by Flo, created by Moore in 1957-8. A sale is necessary, says the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, because of 100-million-pound budget cuts that he is obliged to make. A final decision will be made by his council’s cabinet.

Opponents, including Danny Boyle, the artist’s daughter Mary, and Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, deplored the anticipated decision. In a letter to the Observer newspaper, they declared that it went against Moore’s “belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality.”

Social Housing

Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony championed the same values, with its theme of “This is for everyone.”

In that spirit, it was argued, Moore in 1962 had sold the sculpture to the municipal authority for 6,000 pounds, well below its market price. The artist was pleased that Flo would be in an area of social housing. In the era of postwar idealism, his works were installed in residential developments and town centers. But moods and values change with time.

For 35 years, “Draped Seated Woman” sat in the middle of the Stifford Estate, attracting affection, criticism and vandalism. The 17-story tower blocks were demolished in the late 1990s, by which time modernist housing plans had come to be seen as incubators of crime and social isolation.

“Old Flo” was moved to northern England for restoration. For the last 15 years she has been on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, taking a well-deserved country break.

Heavy Metal

The question is, if not in a housing estate that no longer exists, is there anywhere suitable in the city to put it? One problem is that nowadays, even very heavy metal items may disappear.

In 2005, a bronze was stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire. It was 2.1 tons in weight, and then valued at 3 million pounds. Police said it was removed by lorry, sold for perhaps 1,500 pounds and melted down -- and may ultimately have been used to make electrical components in China.

However, a claim that “Draped Seated Woman” is “uninsurable” has been challenged. Such worries certainly didn’t prevent the installation of a 20-ton bronze sculpture of a pregnant woman by Damien Hirst in the seaside town of Ilfracombe. (Now that would make a pile of Chinese electrical goods).

There have been plenty of suggestions as to where “Old Flo” may go. Queen Mary College of London University and the Museum of London have both volunteered to give her a home.

It certainly would be good to see her back somewhere in east London, such as at the Olympic Park. The fact is that public sculpture is always at some risk.

In 1511, an over life-size statue of Pope Julius II by Michelangelo was melted down by the citizens of Bologna and turned into a cannon. The Bolognese would surely love to have it now. That showed lack of foresight. So does the sale of “Draped Seated Woman.”

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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