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Bust of John Gordon could fetch £2.5m at auction – if Highland town agrees to sale | Scotland

In the hunt for ceremonial robes and chains, a dusty chunk of stone propping open the door of a storage shed in Balintore, Easter Ross, was almost overlooked.

But the doorstop turned out to be a marble bust of Sir John Gordon, the 18th-century MP and secretary for Scotland, whose father had given the family name to Invergordon, a small Highland town in Easter Ross. The sculpture was the work of Edmé Bouchardon, a French artist.

Now, 25 years after its rediscovery and stints in museums in Paris and Los Angeles, the “Bouchardon bust” could be sold for more than £2.5m – after being bought by the local council for just £5 more than 90 years ago.

Full view of the Bouchardon bust
Some fear that its sale could mean that the bust leaves Scotland. Photograph: Highland Council

The potential salewould bring a much-needed windfall to Invergordon and its fund for community projects. On Monday a Highland council committee voted to hold a public consultation on the sale.

In 1930 the local council bought it in a house sale for £5, thinking it would look handsome on display in the town hall. But along with other discarded council paraphernalia, it ended up in the shed.

Maxine Smith, previously an Invergordon community councillor and now a member of the Highland council, discovered the bust 25 years ago when she and a colleague were trying to track down missing items they thought might be in the storage shed.

“I found the robes and chains and also a wee white marble sculpture thing holding open the door. It could have been binned quite easily,” she said.

Since its rediscovery, the bust has been locked in secure storage at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, apart from brief loans to the Louvre in Paris and the Getty in Los Angeles.

“It has not been possible for the bust to be on public display due to its high value and the associated security implications,” a council report said.

Bouchardon was a renowned sculptor, painter and draftsman, whose neoclassical statues adorned the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. His works include the Fontaine des Quatre Saisons in Paris.

The artist created the bust in 1728 when he was resident in Rome and Gordon was visiting as part of his Grand Tour. Bouchardon, who died in 1762, “combined an inventive spirit with a quest for perfection to achieve many of the masterpieces that are associated with Louis XV’s reign”, according to the Getty museum in Los Angeles.

The sculpture is owned by the Invergordon common good fund, which is administered by Highland council. The council sought advice from Sotheby’s, the international auction house, on its value.

According to the council report, Sotheby’s said the work was “brilliant in execution” and that the bust was very collectible and therefore marketable. In fact, the report said, “a best and final offer has been made to Sotheby’s which is in excess of £2.5m”.

The potential buyer had also offered to pay for a “museum quality replica” to be made which could go on public display in Invergordon.

View of Invergordon town
The town of Invergordon, in Easter Ross, could be helped from the sale of the sculpture, council members have said. Photograph: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

The sale of the bust would provide significant capital that could be invested to generate funds for community projects.

“To be honest, it’s doing nobody any good sitting in the Inverness archive centre, which is the only place secure enough to cover the insurance costs,” said Smith. “In Invergordon we have areas of social deprivation but no funding to put into anything.”

Now, she said, “the people can decide the future of Sir John. That’s only right, but it would be a fitting tribute to him as the founder of Invergordon that we use his legacy to invest in projects for the town. I’m sure he would have found favour with that back in the 1700s.”

But some fear that the sculpture could be lost to Scotland.

Bendor Grosvenor, an Art historian, told BBC Radio Scotland: “Here is this work of art that has fallen into the lap of Highland council for no money at all and it seems all they want to do is sell it for a lot of money to someone outside Scotland, when really there is no reason they can’t lend it to Inverness Museum or National Galleries of Scotland or National Museum of Scotland.”

The public consultation on the potential sale of the bust, required under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, must be open for at least eight weeks.

If the public backs the sale, the council is expected to act swiftly. “It is the view of the experts at Sotheby’s that the bust of Sir John Gordon has now reached its peak value,” said its report.

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