THE Duke of Northumberland has defended the decision to sell off a £35 million art treasure to the highest bidder.
Northumberland Estates trustees agreed to the sale of Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks in November amid criticism from the National Gallery where the painting has hung since 1991.
Valuers at the London gallery have since put a 22 million price tag on the painting and the Duke insists he will not sell the painting for an under-valued price.
The Duke said: "The National Gallery said I was ethically bound to offer the work to them. They must accept that there is an international market and if they try to put pressure on private owners, they will find it difficult to get loans from them.
"The National Gallery's attitude is hardly likely to foster a good relationship in the future, nor encourage owners to enter into long-term loans if, when those owners need to sell, they feel pressurised to sell for discounted values."
Thought to have been painted between 1506 and 1508, the Madonna of the Pinks measures 29cm x 23cm and is painted on a fruitwood panel.
It depicts Mary playing with the infant Jesus holding a sprig of pinks, hence the name, and was bought by the fourth Duke of Northumberland in 1853.
The National Gallery claims it had an agreement with the Duke's late brother, the previous Duke of Northumberland, to have first refusal on the painting in the event of its sale.
The Duke said: "My brother died in 1996 and there is no record of his giving any such undertaking. Neither the trustees nor I have any recollection or record of such an agreement and the National Gallery apparently has no evidence of one.
"The gallery has now had the benefit of this painting on loan for ten years, which more than fulfils any obligation that I might have."
The John Paul Getty Museum in America offered 35 million for the painting in November.
A spokesman for Northumberland Estates said: "The funds raised from the sale of the painting will go towards the maintenance and conservation of a considerable part of Northumberland's historic heritage including Alnwick Castle and its landscape."
He denied that the sale is the result of cash flow problems resulting from the Alnwick Garden project.
He said that farming, the Estates' traditional mainstay, is no longer able to support the huge cost of running it and that by selling the painting the Duke is looking to provide a future for Northumberland Estates that is not dependent on agriculture.
The National Gallery is now pinning its hopes on a 20 million grant from the National Lottery without which it says its hopes of buying the painting are slim.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell is expected to make a decision in the days ahead on whether to defer the export of the painting to America, giving British art lovers a further six months to raise the cash.