Lutfur Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets in east London, decided to sell Draped Seated Woman in an attempt to claw back money lost in budget cuts.
The sculpture, known as “Old Flo”, was originally sold to London County Council by Castle-ford-born Moore at a below-market price in the 1960s on the understanding it would be placed in east London.
Tower Hamlets assumed responsibility for it after Greater London Council was abolished and it has been loaned to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, for the last 15 years. A spokeswoman for the Art Fund said it was not clear that the council has the right to sell the sculpture.
“Our research suggests that works of public art were handled separately from land and buildings when both the London County Council and the Greater London Council were dissolved. For this reason our lawyers have been in touch with the council to ask for more information, which they have so far failed to provide.”
The council should “consider all options” including moving the work into a museum instead of selling, she said.
The council has acknowledged it was a “tough decision” but one made due to the “massive government cuts we are facing”. Mr Rahman said: “For the Art Fund to challenge our ownership after a period of nearly 30 years seems to be a desperate PR stunt.
“First we had members of the art world telling a poverty-stricken borough not to sell the sculpture. Then we were told to place Old Flo out of reach in an inaccessible inner courtyard of the Barbican. And now they say we don’t even own it.”