Auctions Controversies Market Norway

Norwegian art groups appeal sale of country’s only sculpture by Barbara Hepworth

The work made £4.2m at a Christie’s London auction this week to go towards plugging deficit at Kunsthall Stavanger

Barbara Hepworth's Figure for Landscape, 1960, outside the Kunsthall Stavanger. Photo: Kristian Jacobsen

Appeals are being prepared against a Norwegian court’s decision to allow the Kunsthall Stavanger to sell a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. Figure for Landscape, 1960, made £4.2m—a record price for the artist—at Christie’s London on 25 June. The proceeds are intended to plug massive deficits at the Norwegian museum, which is on the brink of closure, according to its chairman Eric Moe.

If the appeals succeed, Christie’s may have to revoke the sale. A spokesman for the auction house says it is not aware of any appeal, “but will of course consider any judgment that is made”.

Two lawsuits were filed to try and stop the sale, but failed. The first, brought by Stavanger Byselskab, a local organisation that helped buy the Hepworth in 1968, was rejected by the district court on 16 May on the grounds that the group had no legal interest in the sculpture. An appeal has been lodged.

The second case, filed by 11 members of the Stavanger Art Association, which founded the Kunsthall, was dismissed on 24 June. The members claimed that the museum’s board failed to follow the proper procedures when taking the decision to sell. They questioned whether every alternative, such as sharing the work with another institution, had been exhausted. The judge ruled that the dispute should be resolved by the association itself and not settled by the court.

Andreas Erdal, a lawyer representing the museum in both cases, says he has been told there will be an appeal in the second case, although nothing had been filed at the time of publication. He adds that the case is more about internal politics, noting that 41 members at the museum’s general assembly voted in favour of selling the sculpture, with only 15 against.

The Hepworth Estate said in a statement before the auction that, since the artist had sold the work at a "very significant reduction on the price" (believed to be 50%) because it was going to a public collection, it felt it was “unethical for the work to be resold by Stavanger for short-term financial benefit”. It added that “as this is the only Hepworth in a Norwegian public collection, it would be regrettable to see it sold”.

Erdal says the question of ethics needs to be balanced by the facts. “The Kunsthall Stavanger would be facing bankruptcy if they had not sold the work,” he says. “They have tried to sell their building, come to an agreement with the municipality, raise funds, etc, but none of them have materialised. Selling the work was the last alternative, so it’s hardly motivated by short-term financial benefit—it was motivated by survival.”

When the sculpture was removed, a candle was put in its place. Photo: Anett Johansen Espeland / NRK
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