An auction begins today to dispose of 30 of the 102 huge case pipes that have surrounded the instrument since Queen Victoria was enthroned, but are now deemed too expensive to repair.
The complete set of more than 5,000 pipes, the intricate and internal as well as the vast and visible, were stripped out last year and have been undergoing restoration in Durham at Harrison and Harrison, the 158-year-old specialist firm of organ builders to God.
The case pipes, some 7ft high, have been silent since the organ’s last great rebuilding in 1903, but were retained for effect. The current project, costing some £2m, will see around 70 of them restored and brought back into musical use. But those now on sale are considered redundant.
“Although where possible we have tried to retain and refurbish the instrument’s original features, unfortunately around 30 per cent of the case pipes were beyond economic repair,” said Neil Sanderson, director of the York Minster Fund.
“Three of these pipes will be kept in our historic collection as a record of the instrument, but the remaining 30 are being offered for auction to raise funds towards the once-a-century refurbishment project.”
Those under the hammer, in a sale that is being conducted online rather than in a saleroom, can trace their history to the aftermath of the 1829 fire that damaged the Minster’s Quire and destroyed the previous Grand Organ.
Originally painted in green, they were updated in 1859 to the distinctive gold, green, cream and red livery seen today.
The auction prospectus describes them as having been “constructed out of a thin, lead-rich alloy capable of producing smooth, mellow tones”.
But it goes on to say that “this delicate construction, coupled with the environmental strains of nearly two centuries, has rendered them irresponsibly costly to repair”.
The Minster sells off surplus stone reclaimed from its repair works, semi-regularly, but has no precedent for disposing of organ pipes. Officials say that as a result, they have no idea how much the auction might raise, though a “soft launch” to test the bidding mechanism has already clocked up nearly £2,000 towards its funds.
The highest individual bid so far is £500, for the 7ft 4in Pipe 21, painted in 1859 by a Mr. Blackmore of London in a style described in a contemporary journal as “arabesques intermixed with medieval flowering – touched here and there with vermilion”.
The auction places no restriction on who is eligible to bid for the pipes, which it collectively describes as “a true piece of musical history”. The hammer comes down on them all at noon on September 27.