THE £15m deal to save the Zurbaran paintings is on the verge of collapse, The Northern Echo can reveal, and the project to turn Auckland Castle into a cultural tourist attraction may be in tatters.

Philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer is ready to withdraw his bid to save the 17th Century masterpieces because of the “obduracy” of the Church Commissioners, who own the paintings.

He says the Commissioners keep introducing conditions to the sale of the paintings and the takeover of the 12th Century castle.

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He said last night: “Part of me is convinced that the project is going to happen, but if you look at the betting, it is stone dead.”

If Mr Ruffer withdraws, the Commissioners may be tempted to put the castle and paintings on the open market, with the likelihood that the Zurbarans would go overseas, perhaps fetching more than £15m. However, last night, a spokesman for the Commissioners said: “Negotiations between the Church Commissioners and Jonathan Ruffer are continuing. Mr Ruffer’s original offer was an extremely generous one that not only would secure the future of the paintings in the North- East but also open up some exciting possibilities for heritage protection, regeneration and employment creation.

“We remain committed to helping to provide the best possible solution for Auckland Castle and its paintings, one that will benefit the region, town, its residents and the Church.”

In a statement released to The Northern Echo, Mr Ruffer referred to the head of the Church Commissioners, Andreas Whittam Smith, and said: “I call on the First Estates Commissioner to keep to the unconditional agreement that he and I made in February.

If he will not do so – free of conditions – then I will have no option but to withdraw my offer for the pictures.

“This will be a great sadness and embarrassment.”

And he adds: “It is with profound regret that I have to say that the Auckland Castle Project is at an end.”

Dr Bob McManners, chairman of Bishop Auckland Civic Society, said: “It is extremely, extremely sad. In fact, it is disastrous.”

It is just over a year since the Echo revealed the Commissioners’ secret plans to sell the Zurbarans. After a powerful local and national campaign, Stokesley-born financier Mr Ruffer pledged £15m so that the paintings would act as a focal point for his charitable work.

In his statement, Mr Ruffer stresses that he will not walk away from the North-East, and that he will use his money “to ameliorate the conditions of the people of County Durham”.

Last night, the new Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Justin Welby, urged the two sides to restart negotiations.

“This reopens the questions about the future of the paintings and of Auckland Castle,” he said. “Everything possible must be done to ensure that the paintings, bought by Bishop Trevor of Durham in the 18th Century, remain on the site designed for them, and that Auckland Castle is developed as a major cultural and tourist resource for the area.

“I ask Mr Ruffer and the Church Commissioners to look afresh at what can be done.”

He added: “If any church or cathedral wished to sell its assets it would be required by law to consult widely before being permitted to do so. I hope the Commissioners will take their time and consult across the region before making any final decision about the future of the paintings.”

Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman said: “Given the state of the regional economy, the importance and value of this development is even greater now, so I hope a way can be found through the complex detail to secure the future of these treasures for the benefit of local people and the nation.”

The initial plan of Mr Ruffer, who is going part-time from his City investment firm in the new year, was to buy the paintings, leave them in the castle and base his charity around them. The castle, and its grounds, were to go into public ownership, perhaps administered by the National Trust, and become an art gallery and Christian museum.

This idea had backing from the national art world, although the National Trust is understood to require an endowment of £15m to run the castle, which is said to need £9m of repairs.

Ms Goodman said: “In the last year, we have managed to build a big coalition of support ranging from local people to the directors of the National Gallery and British Museum, the Government, as well as regional actors and funders.

“We already have an idea for our first loans for an exhibition.

We do not want to lose this momentum now.”

Mr Ruffer said: “This is a battle for winning people back to a sense of hope, and Auckland Castle is a crucial part of that. It would transform this area. It would regenerate the whole of the North-East.”

In October, Mr Ruffer was announced as head of the trust which would run the castle, and in November, Prince Charles presented him with the 2011 Medal for Arts Philanthropy.

However, Mr Ruffer is due to award a £250,000 contract to consultants and historians to work at Auckland Castle, but feels unable to do so without having his deal with the Church Commissioners sewn up. This led to last night’s statement. To prevent the Zurbarans leaving the castle, Mr Ruffer yesterday emailed Durham County Council with a pledge to guarantee legal costs of more than £500,000.

The council is the planning authority.

It believes the paintings are “fixtures and fittings” of Auckland Castle and so cannot be removed without its consent. “I will stand behind the council in defending any enforcement order,” he said.

Simon Henig, the leader of Durham County Council, said: “We hope it doesn’t come to that.

We all want to keep the Zurbarans at Auckland Castle, and the council will work with anybody to take Auckland Castle forward.

“It is potentially a great attraction, and we hope that all the people involved are able to resolve their issues.”

Dr McManners said: “It looked like this was to be a story with a happy ending after 14 years of trying to save the pictures. It seemed a win-win situation, with everybody getting what they were looking for.

“Mr Ruffer is a man of great integrity and vision. He has put his heart and soul into this.”

Bishop Welby, the first bishop not to live in Auckland Castle since 1832, added: “Mr Ruffer’s extraordinary generosity and the imagination of the Church Commissioners, who are independent of both the Diocese of Durham and the Church of England, had opened up some exciting possibilities for heritage protection, regeneration and employment creation.

“I hope we can see a new arrangement which satisfies these desires very soon.”

ZURBARANS TIMELINE

1021: Bishop Edmund of Durham has a manor house at Auckland. Over the centuries, the bishops enlarge the house into a castle which, in 1832, becomes their principal residence.

1640s: Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran completes a set of 13 paintings, each 8ft tall, depicting the Old Testament story of Jacob and his 12 sons.

1752: Richard Trevor becomes Bishop of Durham. He believes in religious, political and social tolerance, and is desperately disappointed in 1755 when politicians repeal his Act that allowed Jewish immigrants to naturalise as British subjects.

1756: The Zurbaran paintings are auctioned in London. Bishop Trevor, one of the most powerful men in the North, buys 12 of them, but is outbid for the 13th, Benjamin. It is believed that he wanted the paintings to make a super-size statement about religious tolerance. It is said that he enlarged the dining room at Auckland Castle so it could house the paintings. There, they stared down on the great and the good when they visited the Bishop. He paid for a replica to be made of the 13th to complete his set.

2010

Aug 18: After decades of rumours about the future of the paintings, valued at £15m, the Church Commissioners deny that they plan to sell them when the then Bishop, Tom Wright, retires.

Nov 4: Documents marked “strictly confidential” are passed to The Northern Echo revealing that the Church Commissioners plans to sell the paintings are so well advanced that a PR company has been hired and Sothebys alerted. The Commissioners’ lawyers unsuccessfully attempt to halt publication of the story.

Nov 10: The Commissioners finally break their silence to reveal that the paintings will be auctioned in the New Year, regardless of local opinion, and that Auckland Castle could be sold as well.

Nov 13: Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman launches a campaign to save the Zurbarans and the castle, as hostility grows to the Commissioners’ tactics.

Nov 29: First Commissioner Andreas Whittam Smith on a secret visit to the North-East, refuses to answer The Northern Echo’s questions.

Nov 30: The Commissioners delay the sale by three months to allow Sir Paul Nicholson, Lord Lieutenant of the County, to lead a working party exploring options to keep the paintings at Auckland Castle.

2011

Jan 31: The Commssioners say they no longer plan to sell Auckland Castle, although its suitability as a bishop’s residence is under review.

Mar 24: The campaign now has the backing of everyone from Loyd Grossman to Jools Holland, and the heads of the British Museum and National Gallery who wish to turn the castle into a nationally important art gallery. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt urges the Commissioners to ensure public access to the Zurbarans.

Mar 30: The Echo reports that philanthropic financier Jonathan Ruffer, originally from Stokesley, is donating £15m to buy the paintings and keep them in the castle. He intends to use the paintings as a symbol for his charitable work in the region. Philanthropist Jacob Rothschild gives £1m to investigate the possibilities of turning the castle into a cultural tourist attraction.

June 13: It is announced that the new Bishop of Durham will not live in the castle.

Oct 7: Mr Ruffer is to head the trust restoring the castle and turning it into a cultural tourist attraction, in partnership with the National Trust and Durham County Council. Mr Whittam Smith says: “With Jonathan Ruffer’s strong faith, drive and commitment, great things will happen at Auckland Castle.”

Nov 17: Prince Charles gives Mr Ruffer one of only five 2011 Medals for Arts Philanthropy, which celebrate outstanding individuals who support the arts in the UK, at a ceremony at Clarence House.

Dec 8: In a statement released only to The Northern Echo and The Times, Mr Ruffer says the Auckland Castle project is dead and he will have to withdraw his £15m due to the Commissioners’ obduracy.