Rory Reynolds: Should Edinburgh sell its treasures to fund budget deficit?

As a Scottish council sells off its treasures to fund a budget deficit, Rory Reynolds asks if Edinburgh should go down the same route

TIMES are tight. Everyone knows we need to save money, most of all our public bodies and local authorities.

Tasked with making savings on an unprecedented scale, many officials are looking to areas that both they and the public would have baulked at in previous years.

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It has emerged that Argyll and Bute Council is being urged to consider the unprecedented step of "selling the family silver" in the form of paintings worth more than 2 million.

Facing cuts of 7.5m to front line services, the authority has been told by its former chairman to sell off a trove of rare artifacts, which also include the provost's nine gold chains. One of these was recently valued at 75,000.

It may seem a drastic step, but in these tough times it is likely other councils are considering the value of their art collections and artifacts.

Like others, Edinburgh City Council is facing budget restrictions and faces the daunting task of making some 90m in savings over three years.

As well as a huge financial black hole however, the city has a vast collection of art, artifacts and assets, many of them hidden in the City Chambers and storage vaults. The council acts as custodian of Edinburgh for the city's residents and could not, under its own policies, sell them. Nor has anyone called upon it to do so.

Following the actions of Argyll and Bute Council however, is there an argument that our council should look at selling off some its treasures?

They are certainly impressive, including the entire City Art Centre collection, which contains paintings by the acclaimed Edinburgh-born post-impressionist Samuel Peploe.

The council has not been able to provide a value for the works due to concerns over safety, but in April 2006, Peploe's Still Life with Tulips sold for 523,200.

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The city council was also among those public bodies that successfully bid for an album containing pictures taken by members of the Edinburgh Calotype Club, the world's first amateur photographic society and worth more than 233,997.

At least 40 artworks, by artists such as Sir William Gillies, John Maxwell, Leon Morrocco, Victoria Crowe and William Stewart MacGeorge, were displayed on the walls of the newly renovated 40m Usher Hall. And the Lord Provost's gold chain was insured for 120,000 in 1998, worth around 140,000 now.

The sale of any item in the city's museums and galleries collection for "financially motivated disposal" risks damaging public confidence in museums, according to council policy.

Cultural convener Councillor Deidre Brock said any attempt to sell the city's collection would be "cultural vandalism".

"Here in Edinburgh, we are very fortunate to be the custodians of an extraordinary set of nationally recognised collections," she said. "To diminish these would be an act of cultural vandalism, and deal a devastating blow to the city's cultural heritage.

"It's incredible short-termism and then you've got the worry of where is it actually going?" agrees Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association conservation group.

"Inevitably some people won't value it at all and others will value it hugely. It is short-sighted to think selling off the silver could give long-term gain."

Despite this, there will be those most affected by the budget cuts who will no doubt feel it is worth the loss of a few artworks, which are hidden away from the public, to fund vital services. While such a sale could go some way to plugging the funding gap, arts promoter Richard Demarco has a better idea. "Once you start selling off these collections, you sell off what is in fact a collective memory," he said.

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"It would be much better if they put the whole thing on exhibition and earned money from exhibiting it. They should sell not the objects, but their significance."

No-one has yet made a serious case for the flogging off of some of the city's finest treasures but maybe at a time of cuts and retrenchment we can at least follow Demarco's lead, and exploit Edinburgh's hidden assets.