A TAXPAYERS watchdog is calling on cash-strapped councils to sell off their rarely-seen artwork or put it more of it on public display.

Research by the TaxPayers' Alliance has revealed that councils across the country own a combined total of nearly £1.9bn-worth of art – of which less than a third is actually on public display.

The figures, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, show that Durham County Council owns 314 pieces worth £2.3m.

Steve Howell, head of culture and sport at the council, said the pieces include paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and electronic art, with a large number created by County Durham artists.

He added: “All of these items are part of County Durham’s cultural heritage, which is why it is important they are properly looked after and kept within the county.

"Of the 314 items, 197 are on display at Bishop Auckland Town Hall, Durham Town Hall and other council-owned locations, or are on loan to other accredited organisations for exhibitions.

"Indeed we are always willing to consider applications from such organisations to lend any of the 314 items."

He added that a large number of the works are part of a resources collection loaned to schools, colleges and other teaching establishments for educational purposes.

Darlington Borough Council owns 556 pieces of art worth almost £1.8m, of which between 15 and 20 per cent is on public display.

Stephen Wiper, Creative Darlington manager, said: “Many of the artworks in our ownership were donated to us, and many of these are required to stay within our collection.

"More importantly, these artworks are part of the riches of our town’s heritage and culture, and it is our duty to preserve this.”

As of March 2019, Middlesbrough Council's collection was valued at £8.5m by Christies London.

A Middlesbrough Council spokesman said that while only a small number of pieces are on display at any given time, there is a policy to display the artworks on a rotation basis.

Over the Tees, Stockton Council has 440 items in its collection with an estimated value of £5.8m.

With 43 items on display, the public can see just under ten per cent of the council’s collection at any time.

Meanwhile, North Yorkshire County Council has a comparatively slim collection of 22 pieces of artwork worth £342,250, according to the figures.

Darwin Friend, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "With council tax hammering hard-working families, town hall art aficionados should question whether hidden collections of costly artworks deliver value for taxpayers."

He added: "Some councils are able to maximise value for money by maintaining collections which are small enough to be displayed for the enjoyment of the public at all times. Other local authorities hoarding their own mystery masterpieces should be following in their footsteps."