The government owns £3.5 billion worth of art - but only 3 per cent of it is on display

New research by the TaxPayers' Alliance, conducted via Freedom of Information Requests to all public bodies in the country, has revealed that the government owns at least £3.5 billion worth of artwork - yet only 3 per cent of the work is on display.

Much of this art may have been bequeathed to the government specifically to be put on public display and selling it off would be inappropriate. However, at a time when savings need to be made across the board, it's important that public bodies assess what they do and do not need to hold on to and act accordingly. They may also wish to consider loaning much of the artwork held in storage to schools or local community centres.

Read the full research here

A full breakdown of the art held by individual public bodies and local authorities, and a regional breakdown, can be found here

Among the key findings of the research:

  • The government's art collection consists of millions of individuals items, totalling more than £3.5 billion in value across central and local government, however only 3 per cent of this art is on display
  • Non-departmental bodies aside from those whose function is largely that of a museum or gallery, owned at least 234,901 works of art, worth just over £300 million
  • Of the 201,030 works owned by The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, just 876 - 0.4 per cent - were on display
  • Local authorities in the United Kingdom owned at least 5.5 million works of art with an estimated value of more than £2 billion. Manchester City Council owned the most valuable collection, with a total value of £374 million across 46,347 pieces. 1,017 of these pieces are on display - a rate of 2.1 per cent
  • North Hertfordshire District Council could not provide an exact answer as to how many pieces of art they owned but possess the largest collection of any local authority, with "over a million items"
  • Carlisle Council was the poorest performing authority in the country when it came to displaying the art it owns. Of the 864,100 words of art owned by the Council, only 155 - 0.02 per cent - were on display

Among the items revealed to be among the government's art collection:

  • The most valuable item found by our research is Henry VIII's armour for field and tournament, valued at £53.55 million having been acquired by the Royal Armouries in 1649
  • An L.S. Lowry work, Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, is owned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It was purchased in 1947 for £120 - it is now worth £3.5 million
  • J M W Turner's Dolbadarn Castle, purchased by the National Library of Wales from Sotheby's in 1998 for £210,500, now worth an estimated £350,000
  • The British Council owns two works by Lucian Freud; Girl with Roses and Naked Girl with Egg, bought for £158 in 1948 and £21,000 in 1982
  • The Financial Conduct Authority owns a Geoffrey Dashwood owl, with an estimated value of £100,000

Since the beginning of "austerity" under the previous Coalition government, central government alone has purchased at least 122 pieces of art work including:


Commenting on the research, Jonathan Isaby, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said:

"No-one is proposing a wholesale sell-off of art owned by the government, but nonetheless the scale of the collection is staggering. Public bodies and local authorities should make an effort to display more of their art for people to enjoy, and they also need to take a good hard look at their art portfolio and think about what does and does not need to be retained.

"At a time when we're making necessary savings, it is only reasonable to ask whether some of the recent purchases represent value for taxpayers' money."

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