In the latest case of councils considering 'selling off the family silver' from collections donated long ago, to raise funds amid sharp budget cuts, the protesters fear items could be put on the market to help pay around £1.5m-2m costs for repairing the city art gallery's roof.
The Save Our Art petition is "to ask the British Government to help save Southampton's art collection by creating an independent trust to safeguard it and to take away the threat of pieces being sold by Southampton City Council".
It says it would be a "test case for all British publicly owned art". It comes after a series of similar sell-offs or potential auctions, with the sale of 24 items from Croydon's Riesco Collection of Chinese ceramics at Christie's last year being the best-known example.
On www.change.org, Save Our Art say: "This is a highly important case for all publicly owned art in the country because if any pieces from Southampton's collection are sold it will open the floodgates and change the way that all public art is handled. It is a test case and being watched by authorities and museums across the UK and there is potential to create ripples across the country's publicly owned art collections."
The petition calls for "a truly independent trust" to be sole custodians of Southampton's collection. "It is then hoped that this would set a positive precedence for collections in public ownership to follow so they are cared for, enhanced and used to their full potential with no conflicting influence motivated by financial or political gain."
A Southampton resident, Alex Lawrence, started the petition, according to the BBC.
Southampton's art collection began with the Chipperfield Bequest. Robert Chipperfield (1817-1911) was born in London and moved to Southampton aged 26, to develop his chemist's business. A wealthy man when he died, he was determined that his money would benefit his adopted town. Southampton's overall collection now has about 2700 pieces with a core of British 20th century and contemporary art, such as works by Paul Nash, John Piper, Gwen John and Graham Sutherland.
The council said the terms of the bequest meant works could be sold to benefit the display of the existing collection, and this would cover roof repairs. The Modern British core of that collection would be kept and any sales had to go to another public collection.
Museums Journal reported that the council's cabinet member for economic development and leisure services, Matt Tucker, said the petition was full of inaccuracies and an independent advisory committee would prevent any clash of interests "arising from the fact that councillors are also trustees".
He added: "The implication from the petition is that any funds from sales would fund non-art gallery projects. However, that is not our intention and any funds from fundraising campaigns or (as a last resort) sales, would remain in the Chipperfield Bequest bank account, rather than the council's general fund."