LONDON (Reuters) - Plans by a cash-strapped London borough to sell a Henry Moore sculpture worth up to 20 million pounds to help pay the bills has hit a snag after the Art Fund charity launched a legal challenge over who owns "Draped Seated Woman".
Tower Hamlets in the east of the capital, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, is struggling to make austerity savings of 100 million pounds over the next two years, and proposed the sale of the Moore as a partial solution.
That decision caused an uproar in the art world, with senior figures including Tate gallery director Nicholas Serota and Oscar-winning film maker Danny Boyle opposing what they saw as a short-term fix that could set a dangerous precedent.
The Art Fund has now questioned the ownership of the sculpture, known affectionately as "Old Flo", which Moore sold in the 1960s at below market prices on the understanding it should be put on public display for Londoners to enjoy.
When Greater London Council was dissolved in 1986 it was assumed that the sculpture was transferred to Tower Hamlets, but Art Fund's lawyers say that works of public art may have been handled separately from land and buildings.
"Ownership must be established beyond reasonable doubt before a work of art can be sold," the Art Fund said. "No-one has previously queried who owns 'Old Flo', as no-one has previously wanted to sell it."
The mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman, who has expressed regret at having to sell the Moore, dismissed the Art Fund's move as a "desperate PR stunt".
He received a letter from the Art Fund's solicitors on November 26, and the council's lawyers are preparing to respond within the "standard" seven-day timeframe.
Tower Hamlets has approached auction house Christie's to sell the Moore, and, while its value has been put as high as 20 million pounds, some experts caution that it could go for significantly less.
The artist's auction record of 19.1 million pounds was set at Christie's in February for "Reclining Figure: Festival".
It is not the first time a local council in Britain has sold art treasures to make ends meet, although the Moore sculpture is the most important such case experts can remember.
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.
Old Flo was initially installed in the Stifford housing estate in east London, but after the estate was demolished the work was loaned to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in northern England where it has been on display for years.
The Art Fund said several offers had been made to display, conserve and insure the Moore sculpture, including from the Museum of London, but that Tower Hamlets had refused to consider them.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato