Jacob and his Sons, twelve Zurbarans might be sold in Durham, England

1. Francisco Zurbarán (1598-1664)
Naphtali and Joseph
Oil on canvas - 200 x 100 cm (each)
Durham, Auckland Palace
Photo : Auckland Palace

9/12/10 – Heritage – Durham, Auckland Palace – In February 1756, Richard Trevor, the bishop of Durham, bought a series of paintings by Francisco Zurbaran representing Jacob and his Sons (ill.), the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel (of the thirteen canvases, one is an 18th century copy by Arthur Pond, but the others are all originals). This acquisition was meant to celebrate the “Jew Act” of 1753 authorizing Jews to be naturalized in England. The ensemble has been held since then at the bishop’s residence, Auckland Palace, and exhibited to the public in the dining room which was specifically arranged to welcome the paintings.

These twelve paintings by Zurbaran, part of British and European heritage, today run the risk of being sold by Church commissioners. These Church commissioners, a total of thirty-three, have been in charge of administrating the property of the Church of England since 1948 and notably of paying the clergy. They function on a purely financial logic and consider these works as an asset representing a certain value. In fact, they are taking advantage of the current vacancy at the head of the diocese in Durham to organize this sale next spring, though knowing that the previous bishop was against it as might well be the case for the next one. According to some observers, it is very probable that the sale of ecclesiastical assets will go even further, with the next item on the block being perhaps Auckland Palace itself (ill. 2), the seat of the bishopric in Durham for over 800 years.

2. Auckland Palace
Durham, Englad
Photo : Pit-yacker, Wikimedia Commons

We asked the English Minister of Culture for the government’s position on the subject. His only response is not at all satisfactory : “If the paintings are sold and an export licence applied for, Ministers would consider whether or not the paintings were of national importance. If so, they would normally delay their decision on whether or not to grant an export licence in order to allow UK buyers to raise the money to purchase the paintings” (the commissioners estimate that they could bring in 15 million pounds). Unfortunately, we know that this system rarely results in preventing art works sold in the United Kingdom from leaving the country. Even a purchase by another museum would not be an ideal solution as the paintings should remain together in situ.

It seems hard to believe but the sale of historical heritage and the tight money market familiar to us here in France appear to be even more intense in certain European countries such as England or even Italy. We should unite in a fight against another wave of Vandalism in Europe. On a positive note, there is now rising opposition to the sale of these Zurbarans in the United Kingdom. The magazine Country Life, dated 8 December, published an open letter to the commissioners signed by many art historians and museum directors [1]. Didier Rykner, Wednesday 8 December 2010

Didier Rykner, jeudi 9 décembre 2010


[1] There does not however seem to be an online petition yet.

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