TALKS aimed at saving an A-listed mansion and its treasure trove of 18th-century Scottish and English furnishings for the nation appear to have ended in failure.
The sale of the Dumfries House estate and its contents will go ahead as scheduled next month, Christie's auction house said yesterday.
But the leaders of a campaign to buy the home and establish it as a major tourist attraction in economically struggling east Ayrshire insisted they still had time.
Christie's announced that discussions had ended a day after the Scottish Executive made it clear saving Dumfries House for the nation was not a priority.
The loss of one of Scotland's most significant stately homes, with the likely furore as its historic antiques are sold off piecemeal, now looms as an unhappy first landmark for the SNP's cultural policy.
Dumfries House - owned by the Marquess of Bute, who raced in Formula 1 under the name Johnny Dumfries - was built by the Adam brothers in 1758. It was furnished by Thomas Chippendale and the leading Edinburgh cabinet makers of the day, and that furniture remains.
The marquess announced plans to sell the house three years ago. An attempt by the National Trust for Scotland to buy it for 24 million foundered in a dispute over fixtures and fittings, it is said.
Charles Cator, the deputy chairman of Christie's International, said: "Considerable effort has been made over the last three years by John Bute and Christie's to try and secure an agreement and move forward towards a private treaty sale. Sadly, this has not proved possible."
A contract of purchase had to be in place by 1 June because of "operational issues" surrounding the auction on 12 and 13 July, and the estate agent Savills said a closing date for the house sale would be "set in the near future".
But a spokesman for Save Britain's Heritage, which has raised 7 million of the estimated 20-25 million purchase price, said: "It's not over yet, by any means. Our understanding is we've got ten days or so in which to make a realistic, pre-sale offer and we are working hard to achieve that."
The group's application to the National Heritage Memorial Fund will be considered in mid-June.
Linda Fabiani, the culture minister, said: "Ministers understand the value of Dumfries House, but the likely cost of this acquisition is so high that it would require a major contribution from the Executive, and at this time this is not affordable when there are so many other priorities."
Cathy Jamieson, the Labour MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, will accept a petition to save Dumfries House at Holyrood today. "People will be very disappointed if it is lost," she said.
THE PURSE IS EMPTY
CULTURE Minister Linda Fabiani said the high cost of Dumfries House is "not affordable at this time" for the Scottish Executive.
Save Britain's Heritage, a private group, raised 7 million of the 25 million they say could buy the house and create a self-sustaining tourist attraction.
This January the Labour-controlled executive awarded multi-million pound grants.
A total of 5.5 million went to the planned Burns International Museum in Ayrshire, with the Heritage Lottery Fund adding 5.8 million.
A sweeping overhaul of the Royal Museum building in Edinburgh also received more than 15.2 million from the executive, with 16.7 million from the HLF
In 2006 the National Library of Scotland took possession of the 31.5 million John Murray publishing archive, largely funded by executive and lottery cash.