Giles Waterfield's cry for help came as some 40 masterpieces by Canaletto, Van Dyck, Guido Reni, Guercino and Tiepolo from the Dulwich went on show at Christie's yesterday. The display is not a prelude to any auction - unless the worst comes to the worst for the cash-starved gallery.
Selling off a Van Dyck or a Raphael would be a last resort. However, such a sale would not be a first for the gallery: in 1971, there was an outcry over the 'de-accessioning' of Domenichino's Adoration of the Shepherds for pounds 100,000.
But, as Mr Waterfield pointed out, 'none of those who cried out actually forked out'. He said: 'We are not going to close tomorrow. But if, in a year's time, we have not found a solution, my trustees and I would be suffering from anxious nights.'
It is ironic that the survival of a collection worth several hundreds of millions depends on the gallery raising just pounds 200,000 a year, bringing up the total annual expenditure to pounds 600,000. It is a modest amount considering that Rembrandt's Girl Leaning on a Window-sill, the focus of an exhibition at the gallery next month, has been valued at pounds 40m.
Mr Waterfield was exploring two options - one of which was finding a single large-scale donor: 'In spite of the present problems we are very eager to develop the gallery further and to erect the extension that the gallery vitally needs, so we can offer a potential donor the opportunity to do more than bail us out.'
The second option is government funding. The gallery has approached senior officials at the Department of National Heritage.
The gallery was set up in 1811 in south-east London, but as its collection was never officially bequeathed to the nation, it is not eligible for state funds. Redefining its status is a possible solution.
Mr Waterfield said: 'We expect this arrangement will change this year, and that the ownership of the gallery and its collections will be vested in an independent body of trustees. They will have the power, subject to the approval of the Charity Commissioners, to share ownership with, or to transfer ownership completely to, a new sponsoring body. This situation offers us the possibility to set the gallery up permanently on a proper funding basis, something that it has never enjoyed in all the years of its history.'
However, a National Heritage spokesman said: 'Our responsibilities are limited to 16 national and non-national museums and galleries . . . We have no plans to extend that at the moment. But I'm sure if they were to approach the Secretary of State, he would be glad to arrange a meeting.'
Since 1811, the gallery has been closely associated with the Alleyn's College of God's Gift, known as the Dulwich College Foundation. The gallery's trustees have been the governors of Dulwich College. Whatever the change in status, the gallery will continue as a beneficiary. This year, it will receive pounds 140,000.
Many people will see the pictures at Christie's for the first time, purely because the journey to Dulwich is regarded as 'a trek'. Although the number of visitors has more than doubled over the past decade, the figure is only 40,000. Mr Waterfield said that the lack of funds meant that the gallery cannot afford to advertise. However, he added, the building - designed by Sir John Soane - is not large enough to take more than perhaps 80,000.