11 July 2019, The Tablet

Cash in the aisles: the market for church art


Cash in the aisles: the market for church art

Above left, a detail from St Nicholas enthroned with Sts Hubert, Dominic, Jerome and Anthony of Padua by Francesco Botticini, and (right) the Downside Madonna
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There is a ready market for church art, furnishings and plate in the antiques trade, and religious communities and parish priests needing funds are selling off some of the Church’s gems

Every night at the end of compline, the monks of Downside Abbey sing the “Salve Regina” in front of a fifteenth-century statue of the Virgin and Child. The black, limewood Madonna with her luxuriant, curled tresses is one of the abbey church’s most precious art treasures and probably the most valuable. She was given to the community in 1915 by the historian and former prior, Cardinal Aidan Gasquet, who lies in a magnificent tomb close by. But now the Madonna is to be sold.

In its heyday, Downside had as many as 50 monks. It employed top architects to build the church, now Grade I listed, and accumulated art works from around the Catholic world. The monastery and the school’s reputation and finances have been hit hard by revelations of child abuse. The community – now numbering just eight monks – wants to sell the statue of the Madonna and two Renaissance paintings in the church to try to safeguard the future of the school.

A report last year by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) revealed the extent of the monks’ cover-up of abuse. As part of its response, Downside is splitting governance of the school and monastery into two separate trusts. The community says it needs to sell the three artworks to do this. But it will not say how much it needs, or give the valuations it has received. A conservative estimate is that the items would fetch at least £1 million. The planned sale has come as a shock to those dedicated to preserving Downside’s artistic heritage. It also raises questions about whether the Catholic Church is able to protect its treasures.

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