It has been described as “simply the finest football painting ever” and is expected to fetch up to $9 million at auction later this month, but the sale of LS’s “Going to the Match” Lowry could see the much-loved work disappear from the public eye. display.
The 1953 painting, which depicts crowds of Lowry’s trademark matchstick-style figures heading towards a football stadium in north-west England, goes up for auction on October 19, potentially ending his 22-year residency at the Lowry Museum in Salford. .
The impending sale has stoked fears in the art community and beyond about the future of the image, so much so that the mayor of Salford has called on football clubs and wealthy players to buy the painting and keep in the public eye.
“There is a very real risk that the work will leave public display, and there is a real risk that it will also leave the country,” Michael Simpson, director of visual arts at the Lowry, told CNN.
According to Christie’s, the painting is expected to fetch between $5.5m and $9m (£5-8m) at auction, and Simpson hopes a temporary export ban will ensure the work stays in the UK after its sale.
In such a case, an independent committee would review the painting and advise the UK government on whether it is considered a national treasure and deemed “too important to leave the UK”.
Many believe the North West of England is a natural home for ‘Go to the Match’ and its nostalgic portrayal of crowds flocking to a football match.
The tiny figures in the painting walk towards Burnden Park – the now demolished former home of the Bolton Wanderers – against a backdrop of factory chimneys and gray, cloudy skies.
A far cry from the billion-dollar Premier League industry of today, it gives a glimpse of what English football was like in the mid-20th century, when spectators traveled to games straight from work a Saturday.
“It’s probably the best football painting ever, in my opinion,” Mick Kirkbride, a London-based artist featured in the Football Art Prize exhibition, told CNN.
“It brings up everything about this outing on a Saturday – going to your hordes and your groups and your tribes in this cathedral. And then the industrial backdrop says it all about where the game was born and where it flourished.
Painted when Lowry was at the height of his powers, “Going to the Match” – like much of the artist’s work – has grown in popularity over the past few decades.
Today, nearly 50 years after his death, he is celebrated for his honest portrayals of ordinary people leading ordinary lives.
Using a restrained and largely monochrome palette, Lowry captured moody industrial scenes around Manchester and Salford, amassing prolific work during his artistic career.
He produced several works focused on sporting events, but ‘Going to the Match’ is the best known – as the painting’s estimated price suggests.
“For working-class people in the North who like to look at paintings, this is really our Mona Lisa,” says Kirkbride. “For football fans it’s iconic… You can’t think of many iconic football paintings.”
The photo was bought by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the union representing football players in England and Wales – in 1999 when then-CEO Gordon Taylor called it a “simply the most beautiful football painting of all time”.
But the PFA must now sell the painting to fund its charity work, which includes helping former football players with dementia.
The mayor of Salford launched a campaign for a temporary export ban to be attached to ‘Going to the game’ and wrote a letter pleading ‘[people] means” to purchase the painting and help keep it on public display in the city.
“It has achieved its iconic status over the past 20 or so years when seen in public,” says Simpson, who believes the Lowry Museum has a “very good case” to continue displaying the painting after its sale.
“When it was in a private collection before that, relatively few people knew about it. But having it on public display made it an icon and increased its value dramatically.
The Lowry is a 15-minute walk from Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium and benefits from increased footfall when the club hold home games as a pre-match meeting point for fans.
“Lots of people are coming, they’ll have something to eat in our cafe and they’ll have a few drinks at the bar,” Simpson says. “They’ll come up and take a look at the board, or they’ll just meet people before they go to the game.”
But Simpson thinks the upcoming World Cup in Qatar could entice overseas collectors to try and buy ‘Going to the Match’, and Kirkbride expects the painting to outsell its value given the growing popularity. by Lowry.
“It’s the commodification of art versus cultural heritage – it’s a clash of two ideologies,” says Kirkbride. “Art is a commodity, the currency of art. There’s a tough market there… It’s very, very tough.
Whatever the outcome of the auction, efforts in recent weeks to keep the painting on display in the UK are a testament to Lowry’s artistic legacy and the nostalgic appeal of football.
“Anyone who has been to a football game can see themselves in this photo because it’s more about the shared experience of seeing a game together and being together,” Simpson says.
“Lowry captures it wonderfully in this work.”