Old Flo and Slave Labour: Money is the Problem

The recent furore regarding the removal and possible sale of Banksy’s Slave Labour has many parallels with the proposed sale by Tower Hamlets Council of Henry Moore’s Old Flo. In both cases the initial focus was whether it is morally right to sell an art work, but it did not take long before the ownership of the works was being questioned.

Henry Moore - Draped Seated Woman
Henry Moore – Draped Seated Woman
1957-58 bronze (LH 428) sited at the Stifford estate, Stepney c.1962

Draped Seat Woman (better known as Old Flo) was bought by London County Council for £6,000 in 1962. The price was discounted by Moore on the understanding that the work would be displayed publicly in the hope that it would enrich an area of high social deprivation. It is now thought to be worth over £20,000,000. Since 1997 the sculpture has not even been on display in London: following repeated vandalism, it has been on long term loan at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

In the face of deep central Government budget cuts (which seem to fall hardest on councils with responsibility for our poorest communities), many councils have had to make some hard decisions about how they make ends meet. Councils are not legally obliged to provide arts and leisure services (unlike statutory services such as child welfare, housing the homeless and waste disposal). Some councils are having to cut their arts budgets. Others are selling off assets to balance the books. Faced with these pressures it is perhaps no surprise that in October last year Tower Hamlets Council announced that it intended to sell Old Flo. (Interestingly, if Tower Hamlets councillor, Tim Archer, had not started a campaign for Old Flo’s return in 2010, perhaps she would have been forgotten about when the council bean counters started doing their sums in 2012.)

Amid all the fuss regarding the sale, in December Bromley Council piped up and claimed that it owns the sculpture. The Stepney estate where Old Flo was installed in 1963 passed to Tower Hamlets Council when London County Council was dissolved. However, the transfer order did not mention Old Flo and so (it is alleged) she passed to the Greater London Council (GLC) which was itself dissolved in 1986 and then in 1996 Bromley Council acquired all the GLC’s residual assets which it claims included Old Flo.

While all this was going on, Banksy’s Slave Labour adorned the wall of a Poundland Shop in Haringey. Moore’s Old Flo was sold for less than its then value. Slave Labour was donated by the artist in May 2012 to people in an area for most of whom Tate, the Royal Academy and the National Gallery might just as well be in a foreign land.

And then in February the mural was removed and was listed for auction in Miami. So much fuss was made about the morality of the art work’s removal and possible sale, that it was withdrawn from the auction.

The ownership of Slave Labour seems to be quite clear cut. The wall on which the mural was painted is owned by the landlord of the Poundland shop, Wood Green Investments Limited. And so the paint on the wall is also owned by that company.

Banksy - Slave Labour
Banksy – Slave Labour

Faced with plugging a hole in the budget deficit, can Tower Hamlets really be blamed for wanting to sell Old Flo, especially as it is many miles away from Stepney and can only be seen if you buy a ticket (neither of which were what Moore had in mind when he sold the work at a discount). If you owned a building that was suddenly adorned with a mural worth £450,000 (which is probably more than the property’s value), would you be able to resist the temptation to sell?

Both works were installed to enrich the lives of the people who encountered them. If the art market did not value the works so highly, they would probably have been left just where they were for the foreseeable future. But without that market value, would they be so highly regarded? That is certainly true of Moore’s work, part of the canon of works approved by the art establishment, good enough for many a museum. But such sensibilities cut no ice with hoi polloi who will happily sell a Moore for its scrap metal value.

Banksy’s work is held in greater affection by the general public than the arbiters of taste in our publicly funded galleries. No letters to the editor from the great and the good as there have been about Old Flo.

But it does seem rather odd that a supposedly anti-establishment artist, has now made his place in the history of art and, no doubt, a very healthy living as well.

Law, money and morality have never been easy bedfellows. Legal ownership of both Old Flo and Slave Labour will be established. Morality can be debated. But financial considerations will generally prevail.

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