A lampshade allegedly made from the skins of Jews who died in the Holocaust may be sold at auction, despite the protests of Jewish groups.
The lamp forms part of a controversial collection of artefacts assembled by Robert Lenkiewicz, a leading portrait artist who once famously embalmed the body of a tramp.
Jewish leaders fear the lamp may now be sold to the highest bidder to help pay off £2m debts owed by the Lenkiewicz estate and accrued by the artist, who died in 2002. Jewish groups say the lamp should be buried with dignity.
Most of the gruesome collection, which also features the skeleton of a 16th-century witch, will go under the hammer in the autumn as the artist's estate attempts to clear the debts.
Lenkiewicz was an acclaimed artist whose subjects included Michael Foot, Billy Connolly and Terry Waite and whose paintings sold for tens of thousands of pounds.
His family have reluctantly agreed to the sale after failing to raise enough money through other means. His brother, Jon Lenkiewicz, said: "The sale runs completely counter to Robert's intentions, but the costs are pretty enormous and the claims are large. It's a tragedy. It would have been so good to preserve everything."
Neither the lampshade nor the body of the tramp is part of the forthcoming auction, but some fear that they are bound to reach the market eventually.
The estate's executor, Peter Walmsley, admitted that the lamp might have to be sold eventually. "It's not the sort of thing we would put into an auction sale lightly," he said. "But it may have to be sold at some stage. I may not have a choice about it. Sales will be made to meet the claims of the creditors."
Jewish leaders have warned that any sale of the lamp - whether authentic or not - would be "revolting and inhumane". They called for its burial and a promise from the estate that it will never go into auction.
Lenkiewicz claimed the lamp was made in Auschwitz in 1940, but Holocaust experts dispute this. Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, questioned the lamp's authenticity. But he added: "If it is real, to sell it would be the most revolting and inhumane way to raise funds."
As well as his bizarre collection, Lenkiewicz also left 15 children - just two of whom were from his three marriages.
Once all the debts have been cleared, the remains of the estate will be passed to the Lenkiewicz Foundation, set up to protect the artist's legacy and look after his collection. The foundation's trustees now fear that little will remain. Many of his paintings have already been sold, as has a large proportion of his vast book collection.
A large outstanding income tax bill makes up the majority of the debt, but creditors also include those who have paid for paintings that Lenkiewicz never got the chance to finish. Mr Walmsley needs to raise approximately £2m to cover all the creditors' claims.
Lenkiewicz, the son of Jewish refugees, was born in London during the Second World War. He went to St Martin's art college at the age of 16 and later attended the Royal Academy. After moving to Plymouth in the early 1960s, he took over warehouses in order to house the tramps and alcoholics he had befriended.
Items included in the auction, organised by Bearne's of Exeter in October, are understood to include an ornate coffin, a series of skulls and the skeleton of a 16th-century woman hanged for witchcraft.
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