THE last few months have seen a dramatic increase in the number of works from provincial museums being sold on the open market as a result of government cuts.
With cash-strapped local authorities in different parts of the country being forced to sell off their parts of their public collections, this has yielded a greater supply of institutional consignments which are being offered at auctions both inside and outside of London.
Bolton Council for instance is selling 36 works of art from its permanent collection housed in the town's museum. Sales have already included three large 19th century British pictures sold at recent Bonhams auctions.
Firstly, a picture of a woman sleep-walking from 1871 by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), entitled A Somnambulist, sold at their 19th century art sale in London on July 13 for a below-estimate £62,000. It was bought by Delaware Art Museum in the US who were keen to add to their Pre-Raphaelite art collection.
Making an even higher sum at Bonhams Edinburgh on August 31 was Robert Gemmell Hutchison's (1855-1936) Sea Gulls and Sapphire Seas. Again selling below its estimate (in this case a punchy £120,000-180,000), the 3ft 6in x 5ft 5in (1.06 x 1.66m) oil on canvas nevertheless made the second highest price ever seen for the artist when it was knocked down for £100,000.
It had originally been acquired by the council directly from Gemmell Hutchison in 1912 for £150.
Both of these works had been on permanent display.
Another work from the Bolton collection sold at the same Edinburgh sale - The Rivals by George Smith (1870-1934) which made a top-estimate £3000.
With its budget being cut by £60m over the next two years, the council said it had been forced to sell the works in order to fund a new storage facility required at the museum. Under Museums Association rules, such sales are only permitted in exceptional circumstances so money can be raised towards improving the facilities or remaining collection.
In all, the council is hoping to raise £500,000 and other artists whose works are being disposed of are primarily 19th century, such as Charles Napier Hemy (1841-1917) and William Powell Frith (1819-1909). Bolton want to keep hold of more modern works and those with local connections.
Meanwhile Leicestershire County Council has sold more than 300 works at auction since last November in the hope of raising £170,000.
Most of the works were more modern examples which had been used in schools, including three paintings by Paul Feiler (b.1918), which sold for a combined £40,000, and a picture by Indian artist Avinash Chandra (1931-1991) which realised £16,000.
Twelve lower-value works were offered at Bonhams in Knowle on Tuesday last week.
With the council aiming to cut £79m from its budget over the next four years, David Sprason, the county council's cabinet member for Adults and Communities, said: "Like the rest of the country, we are experiencing a tough economic climate at present and are continuing to investigate different ways in which we can save money.
"The council is only disposing of items of artwork that have been identified as surplus to requirements by schools. The money realised from these sales will go directly towards supporting Leicestershire's arts and heritage service."
By Alex Capon