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LONDON (Reuters) - One of London's most deprived boroughs decided on Wednesday to sell a Henry Moore sculpture valued at up to 20 million pounds to ease its debts, despite pressure from the art establishment to hold on to the imposing bronze work.
Tower Hamlets says nearly half the children in the area live in poverty, the highest level in the UK, and that the council needs to find 100 million pounds in savings over the next three years to meet government budget targets.
Mayor Lutfur Rahman defended what he called a "tough decision" to sell the 1957 sculpture titled "Draped Seated Woman" and affectionately known by locals as "Old Flo".
In fact, the work has not been on display in the area for over a decade, having been loaned to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in northern England following the demolition of the Stifford housing estate in Stepney Green where it once stood.
"It is with considerable regret that I make this decision but I have a duty to ensure residents do not suffer the brunt of the horrendous cuts being imposed on us," Rahman said after a council cabinet meeting.
"We are faced with a stark choice in these times of recession," he said in a statement.
"Do we keep this valuable sculpture ... or do we try to sell this globally important artwork in order to release much needed funds to invest in local heritage projects we can sustain, (and) affordable housing, improving opportunities and prospects for our young people and keeping our community safe?"
Councillor Rania Khan pointed out that other local authorities had sold off works of art to pay for services, but the Moore sculpture is probably the most high-profile case in recent years.
The ruling is likely to dismay leading figures in the art world, who had urged Tower Hamlets to rethink proposals to sell off the "family silver" for short-term financial gain.
"The value of art is diminished by being monetarised," Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, who also oversaw the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, said on Monday.
"The Moore sculpture defies all prejudice in people's minds about one of London's poorest boroughs. That alone makes it priceless to every resident."
Moore, the son of a miner with left-wing political views, sold the work in the 1960s for below its market value on the understanding that it should be put on public display for Londoners to enjoy.
Tower Hamlets council said it explored the possibility of displaying the sculpture measuring eight feet tall and weighing more than 1.5 tonnes elsewhere in the borough, but found the insurance costs would be prohibitively high.
Large public sculptures have been targeted in recent years by thieves interested in their scrap metal value, while Moore works are coveted by the world's richest collectors who have forced prices at auction sky-high.
Estimates of Draped Seated Woman's value vary widely between five and 20 million pounds - the artist's auction record of 19.1 million pounds was set at Christie's in February for "Reclining Figure: Festival".
On Monday, the Museum of London offered to provide a home for the sculpture to save it from the auction block, but it appears the approach was ignored.
Last year, Bolton Council sold 35 paintings from its art collection to fund the restoration and preservation of the remaining works, and in 2006, Bury Council sold an L.S. Lowry painting for 1.4 million pounds.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Andrew Osborn