Back to painting... as the Government goes public on its hoard of modern masters

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The Government has revealed for the first time its full holding of 20th- century art masterpieces which adorn ministers' office walls and embassies around the world.

Artists including Lowry, Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Patrick Heron, Patrick Caulfield, Howard Hodgkin and Barbara Hepworth are among the dozens of well-known names that the Government has been buying from galleries to place at ministers' and ambassadors' disposal.

Yesterday, at a reception at 10 Downing Street, the Department of National Heritage celebrated the publication of the first catalogue listing all the 20th-century pictures and sculptures the Government owns.

The catalogue took 15 years to compile, and thousands more earlier works are still to be documented. It lists over 2,000 works by almost 1,000 artists, though it does not say in which embassy or ministry they reside.

Although members of the public are allowed access by law to individual works of art bought by the Government, the paintings will remain off limits to all but a few.

A DNH spokes-man said yesterday: "I'm afraid you can't just ring up and say you would like to see a particular painting in 10 Downing Street. A member of the public would have to prove an academic interest in a particular artist to be allowed to see a painting in a government building."

Many in the art world have been unaware of the exact nature of the government's art holdings.

Dr Wendy Baron, who retires this week as director of the collection, admitted: "It has been strange to see references to paintings as, for example, a Paul Nash saying 'whereabouts unknown', when I knew it was in the collection."