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by Kirsteen Paterson
26 January 2024
Go Bust: The £2.5m choice facing a Highland community

Bust of Sir John Gordon by Edme Bouchardon | Highland Council

Go Bust: The £2.5m choice facing a Highland community

If you had a doorstop worth £2.5m, what would you do with it?

Would you pop it into storage, under lock and key, to protect it? Or would you buff it up and stick it on display, suddenly aware that this item, worth a cool seven figure sum, is special, actually; a treasure, an heirloom, a collector’s piece.

Of course, you could just sell it. Imagine how far that money would go?

This is the choice facing the people of one Scottish community. So, what will the people of Invergordon do about the Bouchardon Bust?

You might remember the story – a marble artwork, bought for a fiver in 1930 then lost and rediscovered holding open the door of a shed in a Balintore industrial estate in 1998. It depicts MP Sir John Gordon, who is thought to be the founder of Invergordon, and is the work of French artist Edmé Bouchardon. Given that he made sculptures for Versailles and you can find his work in the Louvre and the Met, he’s not your average doorstop-maker. The former Invergordon Town Council bought it for public display, but it’s now so valuable that Highland Council says it cannot be shown due to security risks.

And so, unseen, it languishes in secure storage. Has the time now come to sell up? The Easter Ross Area Committee has said that “may be beneficial”. A consultation on the matter runs until mid-March and if the locals decide to take the money – and the council agrees – the proceeds will go into the Invergordon Common Good fund, where investment could produce a useful return.

So, what to do? The council has pointed out that this fund “has little else in the way of assets or property that can generate income”. But such an asset, once disposed of, is not easily replaced – if ever. 

Locked away from view, the bust is valuable, both financially and in terms of its artistic merit, and yet is providing nothing to residents who might like to look upon it. 

And so, the question of to sell or not to sell may be more difficult to answer than if this was a much-loved likeness known to generations. On the other hand, it could be easier without that familiarity tugging the heart strings. There’s also the small fact of the dire state of public finances.

Invergordon | Alamy

The 3,900 people who call Invergordon their home are now asked to mull this over. If they want to sell, that’ll be subject to approval from council, court and the UK’s Waverley Committee, which could defer any sale to allow a UK museum to mount a purchase bid on the grounds of the item’s significance.

There’s already been a speculative offer, made through auction house Sotheby’s, from a private bidder to buy the 1728 sculpture, which is considered to be stylistically ahead of its time and of superb quality, and it’s been suggested that a replica could be commissioned and kept in the Highlands. 

Millions of pounds and a fake replacement – is that better than the real thing? What is really more valuable? This tug-of-war between art and finance may have been on the cards for some time – the suggestion of a sale caused a stooshie in 2014 – but with arts and culture budgets under threat, the issue seems timely indeed. It’s practically a metaphor for where we are now, but of course for the residents of Invergordon, the question is very real. 

Communities aren’t asked questions like this too often. I’ll be fascinated to see what Invergordon decides.

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