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War murals by eminent Canterbury artists to go under hammer for $300,000 Found in: Stuff - 9 April 2019

Murals by some of Canterbury's most distinguished artists of New Zealand and British forces at war could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Christchurch RSA when they go under the hammer.

The three artworks were created in 1941 by a trio of the most eminent painters of the era – Bill Sutton, Richard Wallwork and Colin Lovell-Smith – under commission from the city's Returned and Services Association.

Now, almost 80 years later, they are being auctioned in Wellington on Wednesday to save them from deterioration. Together they could fetch $300,000 for the RSA Museum and Support Trust, which owns them.

"It's sad but it's better they can be seen and appreciated than sitting in a storage facility where no one can see them and just deteriorating," Christchurch RSA president Pete Dawson said.

"We've got a huge collection of memorabilia from our museum and a lot of it we just can't display because we haven't got the space."

The murals are large pieces – the smallest is almost 4 metres long, the largest nearly 10m – and the RSA has no room to display them after it moved to smaller premises following the earthquakes.

By luck they were being restored in Nelson at the time, and Dawson said if they had been in Christchurch they could have been badly damaged.

The artworks have since been kept in storage and are in danger of falling into disrepair, so the charity made the decision to sell them.

"When we had the old building before the earthquake they were all up in there, a long, single-storey building, and we could display them," he said.

"But since then we had to move to a two-storey building … and there is no room to put them up.

"We don't want them deteriorating by keeping them in storage, so a decision was made to see if they're an attraction on the market. Hopefully some institution in New Zealand will purchase them.

"The big thing with them is their size. That would limit who would be interested  it's not something you're going to put over your mantelpiece."

The three murals, which depict patriotic scenes of Kiwi and British armed forces on land, sea and sky, were commissioned for the Union Jack Club, a recreation centre for off-duty servicemen and women above Pannell's shoe shop in Cashel St.

Wallwork, who was the director of the Canterbury College School of Art at the time, painted one mural with help from Lovell-Smith, a fellow tutor and veteran of the First World War.

Sutton, today heralded as one of Canterbury's most acclaimed artists but then a recent graduate of the school, painted the other two with help from Wallwork, one of his mentors.

A story in The Press on June 17, 1941, following the unveiling of one said the "35ft long and 5ft 3in high" painting "vividly depicts the activities of the three fighting services".

Each artwork has a catalogue price of between $70,000 and $100,000 but Helena Walker, the director of fine and applied art at auction house Dunbar Sloane, suggested the New Zealand art market is in a buoyant period.

"However, the size of these murals does make them limiting for a domestic setting and will limit prospective buyers," she said.

"Due to the unique history and importance of the works we would hope that there will be institutional interest and works can be put back on public display and enjoyed by all.

"We have had a huge amount of interest in the sale as a whole and at this stage expect it to do well."

The artwork will be auctioned by Dunbar Sloane at 6pm on Wednesday.