A Colin McCahon painting bought for just $3000 in the 1970s could be the most expensive yet sold at auction if a suggestion by some Lower Hutt city councillors to sell it goes ahead.
Through the Wall of Death, last valued at $1.52 million, is in the collection at Lower Hutt's council-owned NewDowse art gallery.
Some councillors want to sell the piece to help pay for the gallery's running costs, but the gallery's boss has warned the sale could provoke a "storm of protest" and national disapproval.
The council bought the piece in 1979, when McCahon was still alive.
Lower Hutt deputy mayor Roger Styles originally proposed selling the painting in 2001, which drew laughter around the council table at the time.
But the issue came up again in June when the NewDowse reported lower than expected revenue.
Mr Styles said the council would never consider buying a $1.5m painting, so it should not be an issue to sell it.
"It just comes down to intransigence and reluctance to change anything. I don't think that's healthy."
Councillor Max Shierlaw said the NewDowse had failed to meet its revenue targets and ratepayers could have to make up growing deficits in future years.
"These arts guardians, on the one hand they're saying: no, you can't sell assets. On the other hand, they're saying: you shouldn't be charging people to get into museums."
But Lower Hutt Mayor David Ogden said he would only support the sale if the painting went somewhere such as Te Papa.
However, he did say the painting was in storage too much and he could not remember what it looked like.
In a report to councillors, NewDowse director Cam McCracken warned that similar sales by public bodies had provoked a "storm of protest" around the country.
The community would need to be consulted before such a sale, which could cost up to $15,000.
The painting is the most valuable of five McCahon paintings held by the gallery.
"It's a significant piece and it's featured in a number of really important McCahon retrospectives," Mr McCracken said yesterday.
The gallery showed the painting roughly every two years, he said.
He confirmed the NewDowse's revenues were down, but said expenses were down too and the gallery was still on budget.
Webb's auction house director Sophie Coupland said she had no doubt that it would sell for at least $1.5 million.
"It's very essential McCahon in its message. To have the text running through it makes it a very, very significant work."
A Te Papa spokeswoman refused to say whether the museum would be interested in the piece because of commercial sensitivity.
Another McCahon painting, Let be, let be, which fetched a record $704,000 in 1996, is due to go on sale again next week.
WHAT $1.5 MILLION COULD BUY HUYY CITY COUNCIL
Eight years of food and drink for councillors.
Three more repair jobs on the main Hutt Valley sewerage pipeline.
50 junkets for councillors to visit Lower Hutt's sister cities.
Six concert pianos for the council-run theatre.
Five-fold increase to a tree-planting campaign in the CBD.
Upgrade to the McKenzie Pool in Petone.
- The Dominion Post