Legal challenge over ownership of “Old Flo”

Art Fund questions whether Tower Hamlets council can sell Moore sculpture
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Rebecca Atkinson
Tower Hamlets council has rejected a motion to reconsider selling a Henry Moore sculpture despite a legal challenge to its ownership of the work.

Draped Seated Woman, which is reportedly worth up to £17m, was bought by London County Council for £6,000 in 1962 and displayed at the Stifford Estate until 1997, when Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) borrowed the piece.

The council intends to sell the sculpture through Christie’s next year in order to offset £100m spending cuts.

A motion calling for the sale to be stopped was raised by councillors at a meeting earlier this week. They also called on the council to fully investigate alternatives to a sale – including an offer from the Museum of London Docklands to display “Old Flo”, as the work is often known.

This proposal has received support from the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the director of Tate, Nicholas Serota.

The Art Fund has also raised concerns about the sale and instructed the solicitors Farrer’s to challenge the council’s ownership of the artwork. In a statement, it said its research suggests that works of public art were handled separately from land and buildings when the London County Council and the Greater London Council were dissolved. 

The Art Fund has also questioned the way in which the decision to sell was reached. “Tower Hamlets council claimed the sculpture was ‘uninsurable’, but this is simply not true. The council received several offers to display, conserve and insure Old Flo but it has refused to consider these. We believe the council owes it to the people of Tower Hamlets to consider all options before reaching a decision.”

Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “For the Art Fund to challenge our ownership after a period of nearly 30 years seems to be a desperate PR stunt.  First we had members of the art world telling a poverty stricken borough not to sell the sculpture, then we were told to place Old Flo out of reach of borough residents in an inaccessible inner courtyard of the Barbican and now they say we do not even own it.”

But spokesman for the Museum of London said: “The council has been very keen to suggest that it is the cultural elite objecting to the sale, but this is something that Londoners and particularly local people also feel passionate about. They they have a right to enjoy public art and we ask Tower Hamlets to listen to Londoners.”

The sculpture was due to be collected by Christie’s from YSP this week but ground conditions caused by heavy rain mean this has been postponed. A spokeswoman for the park said she believed that the collection was “imminent”.

Peter Murray, executive director of YSP, called for Old Flo to remain on public display in an open letter to the Observer newspaper, also signed by the filmmaker Danny Boyle and Mary Moore, the artist’s daughter.

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