The sale of a Henry Moore sculpture, which is currently on loan to the Yorkshire Sculptue Park by a London borough council would be "lamentable" but the Government is powerless to stop it, a Culture Minister has said.
Ed Vaizey told a Westminster Hall debate he would not support the sale of Draped Seated Woman by Tower Hamlets Borough Council, which is due to go under the hammer at Christie's next year.
The ownership of the sculpture is disputed but Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfar Rahman wants to sell the artwork in a bid to close a funding gap on the council's books.
Labour MP Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) called the debate to protest the sale going ahead.
Mr Vaizey said: "Quite rightly, this planned sale has come under significant scrutiny and is subject to continuing strong debate.
"Given the historical and social importance of the sculpture to the UK and in particular to London... the potential outcome of the sale, the loss from public display, a permanent absence from East London, the giving up of aspiration, would be lamentable.
"Many people have asked me to look into this matter but I have to stress the Government has no specific powers to intervene in what is strictly a matter for the owner of the sculpture."
Mr Vaizey said an independent committee could recommend an export ban on the statue but this would only buy time for a domestic buyer to raise funds - and would not delay sale indefinitely.
He said "first and foremost" the dispute over ownership, which follows the decision for the statue to be gifted to the old London County Council in 1965, should be resolved and said he had contacted the auctioneers Christie's urging them to investigate the situation. But he added: "I have to stress again it is not an outcome central government can dictate."
Opening the debate, Ms Ali said many people had been left dismayed by the council's decision, dubbing it a "bonfire of public art".