Heritage for sale
Moves by two Catholic cash-strapped religious communities to sell off valuable collections of ancient artefacts, some of them unique, in their care have led to growing concern among conservationists about the protection of the Church’s sacred history
Earlier this month The Tablet reported the decision of a group of Benedictine monks to sell a large collection of antique books, chalices and other sacred items from its former home of St Augustine’s Abbey in Ramsgate, Kent.
Housed in the monastery designed by Edward Pugin next to the abbey church creation of his father, Augustus, the collection included items such as a recusant-period chalice, a rare fifteenth-century manuscript, altar crosses and even an exorcism kit.
Hundreds of antique books were also sold from the abbey’s library during two auctions in November and January, raising around £130,000 for the monks who moved to the formerly Franciscan-run Chilworth Friary, near Guildford in Surrey, last year. Another sale of sacred church plate – which is understood to have been deconsecrated – was due to take place on Thursday and is expected to raise a further £80,000. Meanwhile at Ince Blundell Hall, near Liverpool, nuns of the Augustinian Canonesses of Mercy, who run the building as a nursing home, have sought permission from the local council to remove 67 Roman and Greek embedded marbles with a view to selling them. The marbles, which were collected by the eighteenth-century connoisseur Henry Blundell – a former owner of the estate – once formed part of one of the largest collections of classical sculptures in Britain.
Opponents of the sales claim the communities made their decisions without seeking effective, impartial advice and that their purpose is purely financial. Critics of the St Augustine’s auction – including the Pugin Society – complain that the monks made their decision without widespread consultation with conservation experts.
Similar charges have been levelled at the nuns of Ince Blundell, with conservationists, including the Dilettante Society, calling for the wider collection – most of which was donated by the nuns to the Museum of Liverpool after they moved into the estate in 1959 – to be brought back together in its historic home.
Sources close to both religious communities deny they have taken the decision to sell their collections without consultation, and say they have gone to great lengths to seek consent from both secular and religious authorities to go ahead with their sale. Indeed the nuns of Ince Blundell say they want to remove the marbles in order to conserve them – but English Heritage has opposed their relocation.
The sales are nevertheless seen as part of a wider phenomenon within the Church, where increasing numbers of religious communities are selling buildings and valuable antique ar tefacts in their charge, often when they disband or are forced to move to smaller homes. These sales raise much-needed funds for the communities’ basic running costs and charitable works, as well as paying for the care of elderly monks and nuns.
A prime example was the sale in 2008 of the listed Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire – another Edward Pugin building – which raised £3.7 million from the premises, and £90,000 from artefacts, towards the Benedictine nuns’ smaller new eco-convent in North Yorkshire.
Other religious communities are still located in listed buildings of national historic importance across England and Wales, a number of which contain significant collections of antique books, furniture and sacred items. Canon law regarding the sale of items by religious communities is complex, but The Tablet understands that they have no legal responsibility to consult conservation experts at the bishops’ conference before choosing to put their historic collections on the market. Planning consent is, however, sometimes required from local authorities to remove these artefacts – as is the case with the proposed Ince Blundell sale.
Sophie Andreae, of the Catholic Bishops’
Conference of England and Wales patrimony committee, which advises on the conservation and protection of the Church’s historic buildings and heritage in the two countries, fears religious communities are not always getting the best impartial advice when considering the future of their historic collections and are “not giving sufficient account to the wider importance of these in the context of the Catholic heritage of this country”.
“It’s very sad that religious orders feel that they have to sell these items,” she said. “Many of [the items in their charge] are very important pieces. It is a matter of real concern that religious orders are deciding to sell things without seeking the advice of the [bishops’ conference’s] patrimony committee.”
Not only the Church, said Ms Andreae, but other bodies concerned with heritage, including national museums, have a growing interest in, and appreciation of, the importance of these collections, tied to a recognition of the “enormous contribution that religious orders have made to Catholic life in the last 200 years. Moveable objects are obviously more vulnerable [than buildings]”.
The bishops’ conference’s patrimony committee does intervene where it can to protect the Church’s heritage and it can offer guidance before any sales are made. In 2007 the committee helped rescue a silver gilt and rock crystal reliquary made in 1551 during the reign of Edward VI, which had been put up for sale by Poor Clares when they moved to Herefordshire from their former home at Clare Abbey in Darlington.
“They thought it was a salt [dispenser], and thus a secular item,” said Ms Andreae. “I was alerted about the sale and went to the monastery. The reliquary had been given to the Poor Clares in the early eighteenth century by a descendant of Sir Anthony Browne of Cowdray, a prominent Catholic figure at the Tudor court. The Browne family had been closely involved with the establishment of the Poor Clares’ convent in Rouen where the nuns remained in exile from around 1644 until returning to England and settling in Darlington in the years following the French Revolution.
“In the archives of the Poor Clares we found a letter from an eighteenth-century reverend mother of the Poor Clares who had written that the reliquary should not be disposed of,” said Ms Andreae. When she showed this to
4 | THE TABLET | 11 February 2012