LONDON (Reuters) - A private collection of 57 Italian Baroque paintings once belonging to banking heir Denis Mahon and valued at more than 100 million pounds has been formally handed over to six museums and galleries in Britain.
The paintings had already been on long-term loan to the respective museums for many years on condition that they did not charge admission or sell works from their collections.
Those terms are seen as particularly important at a time when government funding cuts have hit art establishments across the country hard and some local councils are seeking to reduce their debts by offering public artworks for sale.
In the most famous case, the London borough of Tower Hamlets plans to sell a Henry Moore sculpture worth up to 20 million pounds despite the late artist's wishes that it be kept on public display in the capital.
Mahon, a renowned art collector and historian, died in 2011 at the age of 100 and left his collection to the Art Fund charity with instructions it should be placed on display in specific venues in perpetuity.
Under the terms of the transfer of that collection into public ownership, announced this week, the Art Fund's trustees reserved the right to withdraw works from museums which breached the terms of the agreement at any point.
"Sir Denis Mahon was a life-long supporter of the Art Fund and shared our fundamental commitment to widening free public access to art," said Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund.
"His vision as an art collector was extraordinary, as was his determination that his collection should ultimately be on public display."
Mahon spent much of his life forming one of the most important private collections of 17th century Italian Baroque art, including works by Guercino, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Ludovico Carracci and Luca Giordano.
Of the total of 57, 25 works go to the National Gallery in London, 12 to the Ashmolean in Oxford, eight to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, six to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, five to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and one to Temple Newsam House, Leeds.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)