The Northern Echo reveals today that the Church of England has been secretly planning to sell the historic Zurbaran paintings. Rob Merrick reports.

THE Church of England had decided to sell one of the region’s best-loved treasures – the historic Zurbaran paintings, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Officials had arranged for the 12 paintings that hang in Auckland Castle, County Durham, to be auctioned at Sotheby’s next month, for at least £15m.

Documents passed to The Northern Echo – stamped strictly confidential – reveal that church bosses paid up to £35,000 to one of London’s leading public relations companies to prepare the sale.

The paintings – created in the 1640s and brought to County Durham in 1756 – are described as “non income producing assets” that can no longer be afforded, following the banking crash and the recession.

The plan was to replace the artworks with replicas. The documents state: “We are examining whether high quality copies could be made and be hung in the places of the originals.”

Confirming a final decision was taken, the first page reads: “The 12 Zurbarans hanging in Auckland Castle are to be sold.”

Yet, at the same time, Church Commissioners cancelled a meeting with a Labour MP concerned about the future of the larger-thanlife paintings and insisted the issue was simply “due to be reviewed”.

When contacted by The Northern Echo, the Church first denied the sale was being prepared, only admitting the fact when told the leaked documents were in the newspaper’s possession.

A spokesman then insisted the decision had been “reversed”, on October 19 – the day the paintings were due to be removed from the castle, under the original timetable.

Apparently admitting the sale was merely on hold, the spokesman said: “We were not able to tell the local authority, or anyone in the local area, before the paintings hit the sale catalogue.”

Helen Goodman, the Bishop Auckland MP who was given the documents, condemned the Church’s behaviour, saying: “It is simply wrong to sell the paintings. They belong in Auckland Castle. People in Bishop Auckland are immensely proud of this part of their heritage and go to the castle regularly to look at the paintings, which are very important to them.

“The Church would never sell historic treasures in St Paul’s Cathedral, but are happy for the Zurbaran paintings to be taken out of the North of England.”

Ms Goodman said a meeting arranged for last month had been postponed by the Church Commissioners until January, adding: “They clearly wanted to wait until the paintings were already at Sotheby’s.”

Fears had been growing about the paintings because a 2005 decision to leave them in Auckland Castle was always due to be reconsidered by the Church Commissioners after five years.

It appears the Church saw an opportunity to exploit the fact that Auckland Castle is empty, following the retirement of the Right Reverend Tom Wright, in August.

Among a list of “possible media questions” is one reading: “Wasn’t the last Bishop of Durham against the sale?”

The suggested answer is: “Yes, that is correct. He had a strong attachment to them.”

Last night, the Rt Rev Wright condemned the sale, saying: “This is news to me.

Nobody told me the decision was going to be taken this summer.

“I put heart and soul into the battle to save the paintings five years ago and regard it as entirely wrong to sell them.

“There is a massive feeling in the North-East that, yet again, people sitting around in London are making decisions that affect their cultural heritage.”

The leaked documents show the commissioners employed a PR firm called Chelgate, which describes itself as having “an outstanding reputation for its work in acute issues and crisis management”.

A letter, sent by the company’s chairman, Terence Fane- Saunders, proposes his normal fee – “£240 an hour” – and a monthly ceiling of £12,000, to be cut to £8,500 in following months.

Mr Fane-Saunders wrote: “Having lived, until recently, only 48 miles from Auckland Castle, I do know the North- East well and have worked on a number of assignments there.” He concluded: “We are recommending an initial fourmonth engagement, based on the assumption of a December sale.”

The Church confirmed the firm was taken on.

Indeed, a reply, sent by Andrew Brown, secretary to the Church Commissioners, reads: “We need to agree this as part of the marketing/comms strategy with Sotheby’s and we are not signed up with them yet!

We will discuss shortly.”

A “core narrative” put together by Church officials to calm the expected public backlash urges everyone involved to “stay on message”, adding: “Obviously, the narrative will never be issued as such.”

A suggestion that the sale will “release vital funds enabling the Church to continue its work, particularly in the North-East” has been altered – replacing the word “particularly”

with “including”.

Similarly, a suggestion that the decision follows “careful consideration and consultation”

now reads “after careful consideration and discussion”.

The firm notes that the retention of all 12 paintings in Britain would be “the most positive outcome”, but refers to their possible “disappearance into the private collection of a billionaire in Russia, Japan or the Middle East”.

It also prepares the ground by stating: “The sale also means that Auckland Castle will not have to be sold in the foreseeable future.”

Astonishingly, the documents admit the Commissioners have “£5bn of assets and no borrowing”.

An official writes: “Is it wise for a Church to be flagging up its huge, debt-free wealth in this way?”

Approached by The Northern Echo, The Church Commissioners’ spokesman said: “A decision was taken on October 19 not to go ahead with the sale, because there were a number of things still to be sorted out. A decision to sell was taken, but has now been reversed. The paintings are not going in the catalogue in December.”

Asked why the decision had been made in secret, the spokesman replied: “There would have been an opportunity for discussion between the announcement of the sale and that sale taking place.”

Last night, lawyers acting for the Church Commissioners contacted The Northern Echo in an attempt to halt publication of the story.

A lawyer for Mishcon de Reya said the documents were confidential and asked for an undertaking the paper would not publish details of the plan. No such undertaking was given.