It seemed like a harmless enough idea at first. Peterborough Sculpture Trust, a registered charity dedicated to enhancing the enjoyment and appreciation of the arts in the small provincial English town, put one of the works in its collection up for sale at auction. It was, admittedly, from one of its most high-profile artists. Sir Anthony Caro is probably one of the planet's most celebrated living sculptors, and the piece, Lagoon, is regularly described as monumental: a five-metre varnished steel structure reminiscent of a discarded rudder from a huge ocean liner. But the institution could never have imagined the headlines its actions would generate across the world.
The intention was laudable enough. The trust wanted to make enough money from the high-profile auction at Bonhams to commission new work in the town and fund artistic workshops. Perfectly understandable in these financially constrained times, and the catalogue estimate suggested they might expect a windfall of more than £100,000 (Dh590,000). But they hadn't reckoned on the ire of Lagoon's 87-year-old creator.
When he came across Lagoon in the Bonhams catalogue, Caro told the website ArtInfo that his work had been "mutilated". Strong words, but the sculptor has built an entire career on placing his work directly on the floor rather than on plinths, in an attempt to remove the gap between the work, its surroundings and the viewer. And yet, in the catalogue, Lagoon had metal feet welded on to it. "In the catalogue it goes down as my work, which it is not," Caro said, disowning his 1976 sculpture in an instant. "It's like adding a tail on to an animal painted by Picasso. It's ridiculous."
It didn't help, either, that Lagoon was also in such poor condition. It has been exposed to the elements in a Peterborough water park for years, and suffered from the scourge of many a piece of public art: graffiti. Some of the vandalism was impossible to remove. Caro told the Financial Times that he had "trusted them to look after it, but they didn't", though his belief that such amendments had "infringed his moral right as an artist" was perhaps a little precious. Still, Caro was probably within his rights to think it a shame that a piece he sold to the trust at a low price in 1984 to keep for future generations was, in his words, being used "as something to speculate with".
Unfortunately for the Sculpture Trust, however, that's not quite how it turned out. The auctioneer began proceedings with the caveat: "It is the sculptor's view that these legs are not his work," and the delightfully catty rejoinder: "That is not the recollection of the staff of the Peterborough Trust who were involved many years ago with the installation of the piece on site." And the uproar - reported in papers across the world - clearly had an effect. Not a single hand was raised, and Lagoon remained unsold at its reserve price of £75,000.
All of which might sound like a fuss over nothing. But in the end, it's a real shame both for the trust and Caro - Lagoon will now sit sadly in storage where nobody can see it, even if it wasn't being properly looked after. And it also raises questions about artists' relationships with their work once it leaves the studio. Effectively, they lose control over how their creations are exhibited or experienced - and disowning them is just one way of regaining that control.
In 2004, for example, Tracey Emin was embroiled in a huge row with Ecclesbourne Primary School in north London after it investigated selling at auction a patchwork quilt she'd worked on with its eight-year-olds as part of an art project. The £35,000 it was estimated to be worth would have paid for a new arts unit. But Emin was so "upset and depressed" by the idea, she threatened to disown the item. Which, in the murky world of intellectual property law, would have meant it was potentially worthless.
In the end, Emin agreed to pay £4,000 to have the quilt professionally framed and installed at the school - as long as it was never sold. And, indeed, Caro did offer to buy Lagoon from the trust before the auction, but terms could not be agreed.
The moral of this story? You might be able to buy art, but it seems the artists themselves will always think it is actually theirs.