Durham's Old Masters hanging by a thread as Church looks for buyer

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The Independent Online

A new attempt is being made to halt the sale of 13 old master paintings which have hung in the historic home of the Bishop of Durham for 250 years.

Durham County Council has asked lawyers to investigate whether the set of works by the 17th-century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran are an integral part of a listed building, which would stop the Church of England selling them.

The Bowes Museum, 14 miles from the bishop's home, Auckland Castle, has also put forward a proposal to the Church whereby the museum would raise the money to buy the paintings.

The aim, however, would be for them to be stay in the castle where they have hung since they were reputedly bought from a pedlar by Bishop Richard Trevor, then Bishop of Durham, for £125 in the 18th century. They are now believed to be worth £20m.

A dispute over the fate of the paintings has been rumbling on for four years, since the Church Commissioners decided to sell the paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons to raise money for their impoverished dioceses, more than half of which are running deficits. But Durham County Council, in conjunction with Wear Valley District Council, which is the listed buildings authority, is trying to resolve the problem amid rumours that the Prado, Spain's national gallery in Madrid, wants the works.

The council's lawyers are investigating whether the paintings are deemed to be "fixtures and fittings" of the bishop's palace and thereby covered by its Grade I listing. This would mean that the authorities could insist they stay in place.

Kingsley Smith, its chief executive, said yesterday: "The Zurbarans belong in Auckland Castle and it would be outrageous if they went anywhere else.

"We believe the paintings could be regarded as permanent fixtures and fittings because they are part of the historical and architectural character of Auckland Castle, and the Long Dining Room in which they are hung was specifically designed around them. We know that English Heritage doesn't share this view but we are quite bullish about our chances of success."

Patrick Conway, director of Durham's culture and leisure services, told councillors in a report this week that "informal discussions" suggested that £10m could secure the pictures for Bowes, of which the Heritage Lottery Fund might contribute 75 per cent.

Lord Eccles, the museum's chairman, said: "We hope we'll be able to raise the money to buy the pictures, that the pictures can stay where they are and that Auckland Castle is developed into a more significant cultural and educational centre."

The paintings can be seen by the public on Sundays and Mondays between Easter Monday and the end of September, as well as on Wednesdays in August. But more access would be likely under the proposed deal.

Peter Crumpler, for the Church Commissioners, said: "We need to get a fair price because the paintings are an asset held by the Church Commissioners which we want, reluctantly, to sell to support the wider ministry of the Church."