Last week, Royal Holloway College, London University, was given permission to sell a Turner painting, bequeathed to it by its founder, to an American museum for around pounds 11m. It needs the money to repair its buildings in Egham, south-west London.
The Museums and Galleries Commission wants more universities to register their works of art with it to ensure that collections remain intact. Registration would enable them to seek grants to help maintain the works, but would limit freedom to sell the works. The Department of National Heritage opposes registration as it would curtail the universities' 'freedom of action over their own property'.
A senior department source said that, while the Government was not overtly encouraging the universities from plundering their collections, it saw no difference between their collections and private ones. 'The only way the Government would ever get involved with a university sale is if the art export committee were to delay the granting of a licence.'
However, a well-informed figure in the art world told the Independent on Sunday: 'Huge pressure was put on the trustees of Holloway to sell the painting while the Charity Commission was knelt on by the Treasury to give permission for the sale.'
The department source added that many universities found their collections - particuarly those which no longer had any academic interest - 'a great burden'.
The department's refusal to protect university collections has angered the art world. Sir Dennis Mahon, a well-known collector and former trustee of the National Gallery, said: 'The Government is trying to avoid its responsibilities for the arts, which sadly is always the case in England.'
No one knows exactly what works of art are held by universities around the country, and the institutions themselves are usually reluctant to give details for security reasons. In Oxford alone, works in the possession of colleges, rather than the university's Ashmolean Museum, are thought to include an El Greco, a Titian, a Frans Hals and a Burne- Jones triptych, as well as valuable manuscripts in libraries.
A report for the Museums and Galleries Commission, to be published in May, highlights its concern over the way universities are selling off works indiscriminately. The report, Held in Trust, found that some universities do not even know what they own, and are willing to 'dump' whole collections if they become too expensive to keep. Its author, Kate Arnold-Forster, said: 'There is deep concern about what is happening in British universities. We know they are disposing of collections in an indiscriminate way.'Reuse content