On their uppers: The great aristocratic art sell-off

Britain's art galleries lose Old Masters as the owners of stately homes struggle to maintain run-down ancestral homes

The family silver has always proved a handy standby for aristocrats hitting hard times. But spare a thought for the current generation of earls and dukes. Things are so tight they are having to flog the pictures off the walls and the furniture from the living room. Charles, Earl Spencer and brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, is selling two Old Masters that have hung on the walls of Althorp, the family's stately home in Northampton, since the early 19th century.

The auctioneers Christie's announced last week that Rubens' A Commander Being Armed for Battle, first acquired by the Spencers in 1802, will be auctioned in the summer, along with King David, by Il Guernico, bought by the First Earl Spencer in 1768. The two works are among 500 lots from Althorp and are expected to fetch up to £12m and £8m respectively, helping to raise the £30m needed to fix the roof and carry out other restoration work.

Spencer is not the only duke with big bills. Last month Sotheby's boasted it would be handling the sale of "one of the most important Turners ever to come to auction". Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino is expected to fetch up to £18m. It was bought by the fifth Earl of Rosebery in 1878 and is being sold by a descendant.

There are normally three reasons for selling family treasures: to pay death taxes, to free up money to pay for repairs or simply to raise cash. The credit crunch has seen Old Masters return to prominence on the art market due to their long-lasting investment potential. But the sales are also raising fears that Britain's heritage is being shipped abroad. In December, the Christie family (no relation to the auctioneers) who run the Glyndebourne opera festival at their 700-year-old stately home in Sussex sold Il Domenichino's St John the Evangelist for £9.2m. The Government has since slapped a temporary export bar on the painting, giving British galleries a chance to buy it. Professor David Ekserdjian, of the Government's Reviewing Committee, which examines art sales, said: "It is the best work by the artist remaining in private hands and its departure from the UK would be lamentable."

An export ban has almost been placed on Rubens' Head of a Muse, sold at the same auction for £29.2m by the heirs of the collector Norman Colville. Similarly, the sale of the Turner will be a blow to the National Gallery of Scotland, where it has been on loan since 1978. The painting's sale is expected to smash records for Turner. Sotheby's David Moore-Gwyn said that the family are selling because "they need to divide up family assets to secure the future of the landed estates". He added that there is currently "a great appetite for masterpieces".

The director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, said: "It's very sad that, although it has been on long loan in Edinburgh, it's going to be sold." It is understood the painting was offered to the National Gallery of Scotland, but the gallery is currently raising £100m to keep two other paintings it displays on loan from an aristocrat – Titian's Diana and Acteaon and Diana and Callisto. Last year the Duke of Sutherland decided to sell them in order to "rebalance" his assets.

Ruth Watson, who presents Channel 4's Country House Rescue, said: "The truth of the matter is that so many of these people are living in ways that most people wouldn't tolerate – no heating, ceilings falling down or plaster falling off the walls. These houses are part of our landscape. We expect to see them and we want to see them. It really is a poisoned chalice to own one. There isn't enough money and they have to find a way to raise money." That is why in September the Earl of Devon sold 130 items of furniture and paintings from his ancestral seat, Powderham Castle, and Lord Hastings shifted 30 lots from Seaton Delaval Hall. Among the Powderham Castle lots were a portrait of Lady Honywood by the British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and a George III mahogany table. The sale raised more than £1m for the castle's upkeep.

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone