Arthur Hazlerigg, whose ancestors have lived at Noseley Hall, near Market Harborough in Leicestershire, since 1419, sold nine paintings for pounds 270,000 last September in order to pay for a new roof. But his local council has blocked the sale, saying that he did not have permission to remove the pictures from the walls.
Harborough District Council said the paintings were part of the fixtures of the Grade II listed building and could not be removed without special permission. It has issued an enforcement notice demanding their return.
Mr Hazlerigg is appealing against the decision next week, but if he loses there could be ramifications for dozens of other owners of listed buildings across Britain who will have to find other ways of paying for often costly repairs.
A spokesman for the council said: "The sale of the paintings came to our attention through our conservation area officer and the notice was issued. The paintings were considered to be part of the fixtures and integral to the listing of the building."
In a similar case last year Time Life, an American publishing company, was ordered to return a series of sculptures to the Time Life Grade II listed building in New Bond Street, central London, after the Government ruled they were an integral part of the building and should not have been moved.
In the latest case, the argument is likely to hinge on whether a screw attaching a painting to a wall constitutes a fixture or not. Mr Hazlerigg admitted that the paintings were mentioned as items in the rooms when Noseley Hall was listed but said they were not part of the building. "To call them fixtures is not really the right term to use. Some were screwed to the wall but most are hung. Just because they were mentioned as items in the room, this does not mean they are part of the building itself."
He said that if the inquiry went against him he would be tempted to let the 20-bedroom hall fall down around the paintings, which were sold to help pay for pounds 350,000 of work on the roof and pounds 38,000 for rewiring.
"The sale was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life... I won't sell land or cottages because they bring in money but the pictures just sit there and don't pay anything," he said, adding that the hall costs pounds 50,000 a year in basic maintenance.
Nikki Creed, of the Historic Houses Association, expressed great concern about the implications of the case. "These paintings are often very large and heavy and have to be screwed to the wall to stop them falling down, or to prevent them from being stolen, so we would say that does not necessarily make them a fixture of the house," she said.
"The worrying thing about this case is that owners do sometimes have to sell paintings in order to pay for the upkeep of their homes. If the buildings are listed, the owners have an obligation to maintain them and they have to find the money from somewhere... If they are no longer allowed to sell paintings for this purpose then how are they going to do it? Are these houses going to fall into disrepair because they cannot sell items in order to mend the hole in the roof?"
Ms Creed said the outcome was likely to depend on whether the paintings had been specially commissioned for the room where they were hanging and were therefore an integral part of the house and its collection.
All but two 20ft tall paintings at Noseley Hall have now been taken off the walls and stored in a safe until a decision is reached. A spokeswoman for the auctioneer Sotheby's said the buyer had been warned that planning issues may need to be resolved before the sale went through.Reuse content